How I Learned to Drive a bumpy ride at Custom Made.

Li’l Bit’s (Amanda Farbstein) first driving lesson from Uncle Peck (Eric Reid) In How I Learned to Drive at Custom Made

How I Learned to Drive: Drama by Paula Vogel. Directed by Katja Rivera. Custom Made Theatre 533 Sutter St. (at Powell), San Francisco, CA 94102.  (415) 798-2682 OR  September 7-October 7, 2017.

How I Learned to Drive a bumpy ride at Custom Made. Rating: ★★★★☆1/2

In an April 2017 interview by the Associated Press, Paula Vogel stated, “Frankly, all of serious dramatic literature is about being uncomfortable.” Be assured that you will be uncomfortable if (and you should) go to see her 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning drama How I Learned to Drive being given a noteworthy production by Custom Made Theater in their intimate 99 seat venue. It has been called a love story but love between a 35+ year old married man and an eleven year old girl is not pure but simply pedophilia. The intimacy of the theater where the stage apron abuts on the first row of seats had this reviewer pushing back in his seat especially in a late scene when the first molestation is depicted.

The “love” is between the two main characters called “Li’l Bit” (Amanda Farbstein) and Uncle Peck (Eric Reid) who taught her to drive a car. The title is appropriately a euphemism for learning about sex. The construction is cleverly non-linear with the characters frequently directly addressing the audience. A Greek Chorus of three (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera, Valerie Fachman and David Schiller) play all the other roles and Director Katja Rivera has added snippets of Motown music to emphasize the era of the 60s in which the action occurs.

Paula Vogel who has been teaching play-writing for years at Brown and Yale Universities is a master of construction/dialog and has written about a taboo subject that exudes ambiguity. How much of the sexual abuse is due to Li’l Bits compliance?  There is no doubt that Uncle Peck is THE predator and she has inserted a disquieting monolog by Uncle Peck seducing a young boy by teaching him the art of fishing.

In a shocking scene late in the play Uncle Peck’s wife (a brilliant vignette by Valerie Fachman) achingly confesses she is aware of her husband’s attachment to Li’l Bit but ignores it insisting that he will return to her when Li’l Bit goes off to college.

During the 90 minute running time without intermission you may be confused about which segment of Li’l Bit’s life shows up in the play suggesting that memory can be faulty and thoughts are not chronological.  The various stages start with Li’l Bit being the narrator as an adult as she takes us back through being a neglected 11-year-old, an inquisitive 13-year-old, a self-conscious 16-year-old with big breasts and confused college girl.

Early on she introduces her white-trash family with nick-names indicating their sexual characteristics. There is a grandmother who hates sex, a misogynistic grandfather, mother who offers bad advice about drinking/sex and the aforementioned aunt who loves and tolerates Uncle Peck. Added into the gauntlet that Li’l Bit has to traverse are the teenagers fascinated by her large breasts. Director Rivera gets praise worthy performances from the Greek chorus and their many roles that are quite distinctive.

Amanda Farbstein is absolutely superb as she moves back and forth in Li’l Bit’s life as she progresses to an independent woman who is very appreciative of Uncle Peck’s driving lessons   that have given her pleasure and the freedom of driving on the open road. Unfortunately Eric Reid is unable to demonstrate the vulnerability of Uncle Peck that is needed to make him attractive to prepubescent Li’l Bit and the audience.

Director Katja Rivera’s intricate direction has many individual conceits meticulously fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle yet keeping the action flowing through the multiple scenes. She is aided by Tom  O’Brien’s multi-unit set and the capable creative team.

With reservation about the subject matter this play earns a “should see” designation.

CAST: Amanda Farbstein as Li’l Bit; Eric Reid as Uncle Peck; Gianna DiGregorio Rivera as Teenage Greek Chorus; Valerie Fachman as Female Greek Chorus and David Schiller as Male Greek Chorus.

CREATIVE STAFF: Director, Katja Rivera; Cat Knight and Stephanie Dittbern, Properties Designers; Maxx Kurzunski, Lighting Designer; Tom O’Brien, Scenic Designer; Kathleen Qiu, Costume Designer;  Ryan Lee Short, Sound Designer and Toni Guidry, Stage Manager.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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