KPBS Airdate: April 27, 2007
Two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, with rather innocuous, even light-hearted titles. But though there are a few laughs, make no mistake – these are deep explorations of dark themes. “How I Learned to Drive” is about incestuous pedophilia and “Wit” journeys to the end of the line with a woman dying of ovarian cancer.
But the subtext says so much more. Paula Vogel’s provocative piece, “How I Learned to Drive,” is really about control, manipulation, survival and forgiveness. And Margaret Edson’s “Wit” is about coming to terms with death and making sense of life. Two female writers with female central characters, and philosophical concerns presented in unique ways.
Margaret Edson’s backstory is really fascinating. She’s a kindergarten teacher – who happens to have graduated Magna cum Laude from Smith College – who’d put in some time working in a cancer and AIDS research hospital. Based on what she saw and experienced, she felt she had to tell this story. She was 37 years old, she won every award imaginable, including the Pulitzer, and then she went back to teaching kindergarten. But before she did, she created a terrific character.
Vivian Bearing, is an imperious academic, a professor of metaphysical literature specializing in the holy sonnets of the 17th century poet, John Donne. She’s always been condescending and completely in control. Now, in the final throes of cancer and chemotherapy, she’s forced to be a learner instead of a teacher. The doctors do to her what she once did to the poems: they examine and analyze her bit by bit.
The play takes isn’t very kind to doctors, but it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture of academics, either. There’s a parallel coldness in Vivian’s teaching approach and the medics’ research approach. In her memory flashbacks, her students come off poorly too, as does her dismissive father. But to combat the chill, there are two warm characters – a caring nurse, and Vivian’s former mentor, who cradles her like a child just before her death.
The play is extremely intense; it feels like you’re watching this powerful woman’s decline and demise unfold in real time. It’s painful to watch, but it’s a path all of us will go down some day, one way or another. It’s rough going for some folks, what with the illness and medical terminology and heavy doses of linguistics and poetry. And, as we’re warned by the main character right at the top, there isn’t a happy ending. But Vivian comes to a place of grace and redemption, as she walks naked, stripped of all pretension, into the light.
North Coast Repertory Theatre has wrung all the beauty and emotion from the piece, without getting sentimental or maudlin. Vivian would never want that! David Hay has directed with a thoughtful, sensitive and compassionate hand. The central role is a flawless fit for Rosina Reynolds. She’s marvelous — authoritative and arrogant at the outset, shriveled and humbled by the end. A wonderful performance. And the seven actors who surround her, often playing multiple roles, credibly capture the essence of their disparate characters.
There are some pretty disparate – and quirky – characters in “How I Learned to Drive,” too. And that’s where the humor comes in. Acclaimed playwright Paula Vogel upends all our expectations about the subject of this drama – a memory play composed of multiple short, cinematic scenes – mostly flashbacks. We first meet Li’l Bit in her 30s, as she looks back on her relationship with her Uncle Peck — how it began, how it evolved and the toll it took on both of them.
One of the most interesting facets of the play is that this predatory uncle isn’t just a villainous pedophile. We all feel knee-jerk revulsion about incest and pedophilia. But Vogel manages to make Uncle Peck a sympathetic character. And Li’l Bit comes to recognize her and her family’s complicity in the relationship. It’s the flip-side of “Lolita,” the eroticizing of a young girl, told from the girl’s perspective. And for Li’l Bit, only by looking at the relationship with the cold eye of retrospective reality can she begin to heal and move on.
This is just the type of dark story Lynx Performance Theatre likes to tackle. Founder/artistic director Al Germani is a psychotherapist, so he loves digging deep into the disturbed psyche. The performances are really excellent. But a lot of the humor gets lost in this minimalist but fussy production. And it’s rather disturbing to have a 9 year-old girl play the young Li’l Bit, introducing many scenes and speaking, not always intelligibly, many crucial lines. This is no play for kids, and that isn’t the way the playwright conceived the role. The conceit takes a liberty that doesn’t enhance the proceedings. In addition, having the talented young cast sing all the ‘60s songs that should provide backdrop to the scenes, interferes with the dramatic action. The play is rife with uncomfortable truths, the this production is discomfiting, too, and not always as the playwright intended.
Though both plays present an intellectual and emotional challenge, theatergoers shouldn’t shy away from the meaty material; they would miss some mighty savory performances.
© 2007 Patté Productions, Inc.