Perhaps it’s simply a matter of Arliss Howard being a more experienced stage actor than his film actress wife Debra Winger, who is making her professional stage debut in this American Repertory Theater production of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive.” Whatever the reason, the production revolves around alcoholic pedophile Uncle Peck more than his niece Li’l Bit, one of his child victims and the narrator of the play. While Winger’s performance as the 40ish woman recalling her sexual relationship with her uncle from the age of 11 is never less than highly intelligent and persuasive, she isn’t as completely at ease onstage as Howard, whose Peck is all gentle, quiet seductiveness.
Nevertheless, Winger reveals many sure stage instincts, not least her ability to create a basically pragmatic L’il Bit, a woman wandering through her childhood memories who does not seem to have been unduly damaged by being the victim of a sexual predator. Indeed this Li’l Bit’s greatest burden would seem to be the belief that her ultimate rejection of her uncle drove him to drink himself to death. Certainly Winger’s Li’l Bit is a survivor in this version of Vogel’s “mammary play.”
Winger and Howard, who is no newcomer to the stage or to the ART, also work beautifully together, particularly when illuminating the aspects of the play that suggest that Li’l Bit wasn’t all victim, that she apparently enjoyed at least part of her sexual relationship with her uncle, and that she wasn’t above flirting with him and, in effect, seducing him at times. Vogel is very even-handed in this play. It has no black-and-white villains or victims.
Pulitzer Prize or no, however, “How I Learned to Drive” isn’t always a particularly subtle play. This is notably true in its characterization of Li’l Bit’s “cracker background,” her Southern mother, grandmother and grandfather who give family members nicknames based on their private parts.
And although the three actors who play all the many supporting parts in the play, Kate Wisniewski, Aysan Celik and Jonathan Hova, are extremely adept at switching ages and appearances, they have been allowed to go over the top into burlesque characterizations at times. Director David Wheeler, who has clearly worked well with his two leads, might well have reined in this Greek Chorus trio when they grew too broad.
ART’s Loeb Drama Center is being used in its thrust mode, with the audience on three sides for this production. Winger, hair cut short and wearing trousers so that at times she recalls Julie Harris as Frankie in “The Member of the Wedding,” is seated in a front-side audience seat when the play opens, making her entrance onto the stage from that seat and returning to it at one point for a minor costume change. The entire production has a clean, crisp air about it thanks to Wheeler and set designer J. Michael Griggs.
Griggs has opted for minimalism, with several wooden platforms bordered by pebbles, a drive-in movie screen for projections of road signs and pinup girls, a roadblock and a few chairs. John Ambrosone’s lighting adds to the production’s fluidity and ambience, notably during Howard’s enchanting monologue when Uncle Peck goes fishing.