Ragtag’s stellar ‘How I Learned to Drive’ makes no apologies

Jacob Coakley

Four stars

How I Learned to Drive November 21 & 22, 8 p.m.; November 23, 2 p.m.; $14-$19. Onyx Theatre, 702-732-7225.

There’s a scene in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive where a sexual predator, Peck, convinces his 13-year-old niece, Lil’ Bit, to pose for some pinup photos. Their relationship shifts as Lil’ Bit refuses, then acquiesces, then draws a line and then agrees to move past it—with the back and forth drawing nervous laughter from the audience and charting a dark, pressing emotional need from both characters. It does all that, but it doesn’t ask you to sympathize with the abuse.

Sympathy exists outside this play’s purview—one of the final scenes depicts the initial abuse, and it’s clear that’s exactly what it is: abuse. But there’s also clarity about what comfort Lil’ Bit gets from her relationship with her abuser. And there’s humor shot through the play, defining the environment and characters from which this behavior comes. These threads—acknowledgement of abuse, the promise of tenderness and control in the relationship that led to the participation in the abuse and the familial context—are not just woven into How I Learned to Drive but knotted throughout it, forming a complicated portrait that’s exactly that, a portrait. It is not a condemnation. It is not an apologia. It is a story, full of humor, tenderness, frustration, anger and loss. And Ragtag Entertainment’s presentation of this portrait, now playing at the Onyx Theatre, is powerful and troubling.

As Uncle Peck, Glenn Heath delivers the finest performance I’ve seen from him, creating a smooth yet haunted man, capable of masking heinous deeds in tenderness. As Brenna Folger dips into the different ages of Lil’ Bit, her awkwardness, terror, confusion and control are clear and affecting. The Greek chorus of Caitlin Shea, Anthony Meyer and Memory McAllister all adapt well to their multiple roles—with Shea delivering a powerful monologue as the abuser’s wife, along with a devastatingly funny turn as Lil’ Bit’s mom, a font of misinformation about holding your liquor on a date.

Several technical hiccups push the play past its Brechtian format and worked to pop the audience out of the presentation, but the essential clarity of Joe Hynes’ staging ultimately prevailed. How I Learned to Drive is a complicated piece that appears deceptively simple in its execution. It unfurls as naturally as a gentle curve in the road, but the wreckage just around the bend will haunt you for some time.

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