It’s innocuously titled, so anyone unfamiliar with the script shouldn’t expect one hour 40 minutes of learner permit anecdotes from Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned To Drive. Instead, this highly emotive drama brings the taboo issues of incest and paedophilia to the stage.
Mockingbird Theatre’s bildungsroman story is framed as a driving lesson – a rite of passage for most young adults - and chronicles the loss of innocence of Lil Bit (Sarah Reuben), a downtrodden but clever young woman from a (deeply caricatured) Southern, ‘cracker’ family (played by an impressively stand-out trio, Sebastian Bertoli, Juliet Hindmarsh, and Andrea McCannon, in the manner of a traditional Greek Chorus), and her Uncle Peck (Jason Cavanagh), a former WW2 Marine, with a gentle nature, a voice like warm honey, and a drinking problem.
The story is non-linear, shifting back and forth as Lil Bit grows up in the '60s and ;70s, south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though there’s definitely something very peculiar and unsettling about the relationship between Lil Bit and her uncle, played out mostly in his car, it’s this jumbled chronology which means the audience only learns about Uncle Peck first molesting Lil Bit (at the time aged 11) halfway through the play.
Vogel’s script notably depicts Peck and Lil Bit as three-dimensional people with strengths and weaknesses, rather than blatantly demonizing one and victimising the other, and there is a discernible moral ambiguity through the play. Lil Bit vacillates between repulsion of her uncle’s advances – hunching her shoulders and retreating inwardly – to wonder, vague encouragement, and even uncertain compliance. Sarah Reuben deftly moves between pubescent curiosity and toughened maturity with ease, portraying Lil Bit with a mixture of uncertain innocence and, later, steely resolve.
Uncle Peck isn’t forceful – he’s sensitive and flattering, homely and nice. Which should make him all the more repulsive. And yet, it doesn’t. It’s so hard to hate him because, with echoes of Nabokov, he has convinced himself he is in love with the girl. Jason Cavanagh’s portrayal of this confusingly unfamiliar type of sexual predator is absolutely exemplary. He embodies Peck entirely so that every nuance, every gesture is infused with delicate meaning and depth. It really is a stellar performance by a talented actor.
To use its principal imagery; the production glides swiftly into gear from the outset. Though it’s peppered with humour and wit (provided exceptionally well by the talented Greek Chorus) it could have been an extremely hard production to embrace. Impressively, Director Chris Baldock very successfully tackles the unsavoury subjects in the confronting script with subtlety and respect, to produce another excellent production for Mockingbird Theatre.
The season is presented in support of ChildWise.