HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVEBy Paula Vogel
Sundown Collaborative Theatre
DIRECTOR- Julia Bodiford
STAGE MANAGER- Brandy Townsend
LIGHTING DESIGNER- Ryan Davila
PRODUCING MEMBER- Kara Bruntz
COSTUME DESIGNER- Birdie Holly
INTIMACY DIRECTOR- Claire Fountain
LI’L BIT- Taylor Reed
UNCLE PECK- Matthew Eitzen
FEMALE GREEK CHORUS- Kara Bruntz
MALE GREEK CHORUS- Joshua Dobelbower
TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS- Courtney Dobelbower
MALE CHORUS UNDERSTUDY- Jacob Drum
IMPORTANT NOTE: Friday, December 16th will be their understudy performance featuring Jacob Drum as Male Greek Chorus.
Reviewed Performance: 12/11/2022
Reviewed by Edna Elizabeth Ellsberry, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Vogel uses chapters from the Driving Manual as a device to set each scene, which takes place over roughly seven years: from the early 1960s until the early 1970s. It begins when our narrator is seventeen and goes backward, (Using the Reverse Gear, as the slide informs us), referencing the Driving Manual. This is an intricately structured play, which relies on its two leads, Li’l Bit, and her Uncle Peck, who is given a honeyed drawl, by Matthew Eitzen. The tale begins when Li’l Bit is eighteen and goes back to the age of eleven. There is also a Greek Chorus of three performers, with each of their roles specified: Male Greek Chorus (Joshua Dobelbower), Female Greek Chorus (Kara Bruntz), and Teenage Greek Chorus (Courtney Dobelbower). The chorus serves to take on all the other roles in the scenes: family members, high school classmates, and even the voice of Li’l Bit near the end of the play.
In order to produce this play, one must curate an extraordinary cast: L’il Bit’s age ranges from an adolescent to a teenager to a middle-aged adult. Uncle Peck must convey intelligence, and charm, and cannot be a stock villain. The Greek Chorus members require versatility to convey not only their disparate character’s ages but also their relationship to our main characters. Vogel is precise in doling out roles to each member of the Chorus, suggestions on their respective ages, and the like, but it is still a challenge to make this work well, both from the casting and performance angles, as it depends upon fine cast members to convey its heart.
One might get the idea that this is a dark, dreary, slog through a horrific situation, but this is untrue. From the observations of Li’l Bits’ grandmother and mother about the nature of men and sex, the Do’s, and Don’ts of Drinking, to the awkward encounter with a cracked-voice boy, the dialogue within the scenes is frequently hilarious. When Li’l Bit’s journey begins, she is an adolescent: She develops early and is embarrassed by both her family and schoolmates, and she addresses us about learning not to jiggle; to young adulthood, where she attempts to exert control over her body and mind, and finally to a forty-something-year-old who has both absorbed and extracted her past, this is an exploration worth one’s time.
Interpreting the main characters is a delicate proposition, and Reed and Eitzen are well-prepared for the challenge. Neither actor changes costume, nor adopts props to signify the change in age: it is all done with movement, facial expressions, voice, or a small physical gesture. The other challenge is conveying the emotional state of these people in a way that reveals the truth of the play as a whole. One additional member of the crew is necessary for helping to define the relationship between these two characters by assisting the main actors, and that is the Intimacy Coach, whose role has become integral to stage as well as film productions. Even though there are no explicit scenes, Claire Fountain acts as a liaison between the actors and the director.
The set design is deliberately minimal, with two chairs serving as the front seat of the car, with more chairs added for family gatherings, and the most significant set piece is a bed, which makes an appearance near the end of the play. There are three screens used onstage, to project the Driving Manual titles, as well as the cars Uncle Peck idolizes, with busty young women posing alongside. Photographs of Li’l Bit, taken with Uncle Peck’s camera, are interspersed with photos and drawings of pin-ups. The screens enhance the world we are glimpsing, giving more depth of detail to the minimalist elements. There are no costume changes by the main characters, and there are small elements given to the Greek Chorus: Eyeglasses, a Sweater, a cane, or an apron. Only one Chorus member changes her top during the show. Characters are differentiated by voice and movement, primarily. Few props are used: drinking glasses and bottles. Costumes are equally simple, with no change for the main characters, as mentioned above, but the Chorus may add glasses, a cane, or a sweater, with one member who changes her top, but characters are differentiated by voice and movement, primarily.
The Sundown Collaborative Co-Artistic Director, and director of HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE, Julia Bodiford, informed us during her curtain speech, that Sundown originally wanted to produce this play in 2020, and they are now able to bring it to audiences. Coincidentally, the original director, and two main actors from the 1997 production have brought it back to the stage in New York. Due to the unique structure of the show, it is possible to do this.
Vogel’s play remains relevant, after a quarter of a century, prompting questions: In light of the changes in the years since the debut of the play, has our lens of perception changed? Does our newfound awareness of the subject matter affect our perception of this play?
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is an antidote to the pleasant, colorful, sometimes benign, holiday fare available at the moment. For those who appreciate thoughtful, emotionally compelling theater, there are three performances this weekend. This is an absorbing work, presented by a skillful team, both onstage and off.
Performing at the Black Box Theatre, 318 E. Hickory, Denton, TX 76201
December 16th and 17th at 8:00 pm, and December 18th at 3:00 pm
For tickets: http://www.sundowntheatre.org/