NUTS’ latest production, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, is nothing short of provocative. Narrated by its lead character, ‘Li’l Bit’ (Lauren Atkin), the play is an affecting story of a young girl’s ascent into adulthood beneath the manipulating advances of her uncle. It unfolds through a series of non-linear flashbacks, crafted in the form of an instructional driving video. The prevalent driving metaphor propels the script through a complex and challenging thematic landscape. How I Learned to Drive is no leisurely afternoon road-trip – it explores pedophilia, alcoholism, misogyny and infidelity – but with balance and capable direction, director Emily Clark has put on a thought-provoking production.
Vogel’s script strikes a delicate balance between disturbing and funny, and the cast is to be highly commended for their control in portraying this. Emily Clark was set with the difficult task of interpreting the play’s thorny central themes and presented a sensitive portrait without allowing the play to lose its essential shape. Skillful acting coupled with effective direction sees the complex moral themes of the play humanised, but not undermined. Ava Jeorge’s set design effectively grounds the script in its contemporary context by creating a space that is simultaneously innovative and hauntingly familiar.
Lauren Atkin’s captivating portrayal of Li’l Bit captures the angst of the young female adolescent, garnished with the appropriate dose of vulnerability. Dylan Van Den Berg, as the ill-intentioned Uncle Peck, proves himself as a capable and natural performer, playing perversion with sensitivity. These performances are strongly supported by the Greek Chorus, a talented ensemble cast: the innocently afflicted Aunt Mary (Nikita Waldron) and the by-turns boisterous and compassionate Mother (Rebecca Riggs) are both performed with strength and sensitivity. Lewis McDonald’s multiple roles reflect his versatility as a performer, but his strengths shine in the confident portrayal of the misogynistic mess that is Lil Bit’s Grandfather. Caitlin Burke’s portrayal of the ludicrous Grandmother excels at injecting the play with the needed physicality and comic clarity to maintain its unique balance and provide the audience with an admissible reason to smile. The cast’s cohesion allows the script to flow fluidly, while finely tuned Southern accents and subtle yet effective costuming give the performance contextual orientation. The cast and crew of How I Learned to Drive have confidently confronted uncomfortable themes and executed them in the most forgiving way imaginable. The tone, the setting, and the familiarity of the play’s characters succeed at concealing the poison within the pastels, making the descent into discomforting themes gentle but haunting.
Prepare to have you moral gears grinded, but don’t expect redemption at the end. Though the desire for closure is not refunded, do expect to be moved. (Moved enough to need a shower, maybe, but also emotionally moved). This is a sad play, but the shock value of its themes is bolstered by comic energy and perceptive direction, design, and performances.
Take ‘How I Learned to Drive’ for a spin, I can promise you it’s got plenty of horsepower.