This past weekend Second Stage sponsored a production of Paula Vogel’s 1997-Pulitzer-Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” directed by Shelby Arnold ’12. The play explores processes of control and manipulation by chronicling the life of Lil Bit, a young girl from rural Maryland. The play follows her through high school, college, and the beginning of her adult life. Lil Bit lives in a family that is sexually open to a sometimes disturbing degree, and it is through the story of her uncle (through marriage) teaching her to drive that the play addresses issues of incest, pedophilia, and misogyny. One of the initially stranger features of the play, executed well in this production, is the presence of a traditional Greek chorus. Though it may catch you off-guard at first, it becomes very appropriate as the play goes on.
The most impressive aspect of the play is its ability to move seamlessly from an amusing to a disturbing tone, swinging back and forth between the two with ease and grace. This intense disparity in tone is where strong acting and directing become crucial for a play, and this Second Stage production had both. It was hard not to be moved either way as the actors made the audience alternate between laughter and gasps of shock on the turn of a dime.
Willa Beckman ’15 played the lead role of Lil Bit, and desipte some minor semantic errors was able to navigate the complex territory of the show incredibly well, moving this reviewer to near-tears at one point (which doesn’t happen as often as you might think). Beckman was able to convey the humorous and disturbing aspects of the play with equal prowess. The play jumps around in time, so she had to portray Lil Bit at a variety of ages and was impressive in making changes to her performance to express the different ages—changing tone of voice, posture, and confidence. In short, this young actress has got three exciting years of theater ahead of her at Wes.
Brett Keating ’15 also distinguished himself in the other lead role of Lil Bit’s Uncle Peck. It even got to the point that Lil Bit’s feelings about him became eerily reasonable. This was also due to the supporting cast, which did excellent work rendering the emotions and actions of all the characters more realistically, which again was somewhat unsettling. Their efforts also helped make the presence of the Greek Chorus seem completely natural. Credit for all of these factors must be given to the director—Arnold took a dark, challenging play and handled it with polish.
The set design was minimal but elegant. The lighting took advantage of that and was able to highlight scenes and emotions quite well, adding significantly to the overall show. On the whole, this was a very successful production and congratulations are due to all involved.