Backyard Renaissance presents Paula Vogel's "How I learned to Drive"

 A Raw and Suspenseful Story Delivered with Care and Pace

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Megan Carmitchel, Francis Gercke, and Emilee Zuniga. Photo by Daren Scott.
Agh, the theatre world -as it should- has a little bit of everything out there, and within that variety are those works like this one, How I Learned to Drive that presented to me this big dichotomy: a smart, strong, well-written play that is hard to watch. But life is not all oats and honey and playwright Paula Vogel's work, is precisely about that.

Backyard Renaissance presented this raw and suspenseful story with care and pace. Set in rural Maryland in a family "full of crackers" as one of the main characters "Li'l Bit" (Megan Carmitchel) describes it. An only child raised by a single mom within a small family made up of the maternal side: grandparents, a submissive grandmother and "Big Papa" the grandfather, her mom's sister Aunty Lily, and her husband "Uncle Peck" (Francis Gercke). The family members are nicknamed after their genitalia and the dynamic of the story's flow is Li'l Bit narrating/explaining to the audience starting in 1969 and then going back through the years to the beginning of the decade. Uncle Peck taught Little Bit how to drive with a stick shift. The shifts are used as a metaphor interlacing the years with each speed change sprinkled with comedic bytes. 

Trigger warning: The scenes reveal that Uncle Peck is a pedophile and a groomer displaying states of seduction, control, shock, and realization.

Yi-Chien Lee made the Tenth Avenue Theatre stage look huge by having the design on the ground level using a wooden road with wooden signs to illustrate the DMV, the actual road, and the road of life going with Vogel's metaphors in the play.

I am appreciative of Anthony Methvin's directorial style in handling a whopper of a plot with care. There are five actors, Carmitchel and Gercke who play one role while William Huffaker, Karson St. John, and Emilee Zuniga play various roles and do not leave the stage, standing or sitting on the sides watching what is unfolding a la Greek chorus. The shifting gears also with the different roles briefly alleviate the tension having each actor display their chops. Karson St. John does a stellar job parallelling both Li'l Bit's mom and aunt, contrasting personalities dashed with alcoholism, denial, and being a bystander all while looking fabulous in Jessica John Gercke's costume design that involves slight and functional changes onstage. William Huffaker and Emilee Zuniga also presented contrasting tones while portraying young kids, teenagers, and seniors, again alleviating the heaviness in the room.

Megan Carmitchel evokes a myriad of emotions in her portrayal of Li'l Bit, never letting go of this character's humanity and confusion from childhood to adulthood, giving truly moving work. Francis Gercke's role in this plays with the audience's psyche doing great work as well that there has to be a separation from the character to just dislike/hate only one of him. Confusing as it is, it is good theatre. 

This piece is solid with no cracks and also displays the fantastic work of the associate director and intimacy coach, Hannah Meade, the accentuating of the scenes by Curtis Mueller's lighting design as well as George Ye's sound, even had me feeling the temperature changes in the play.

How I Learned to Drive deals with a plot that sadly, is common in this world. The theatre will go beyond entertaining and put a conversation on the table prompting inner dialogues that will spark conversations and maybe land some conclusions. The important thing here is, that through this art form, we are talking about it.

Currently playing until March 16. For performance times and ticket prices please click here.

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