On its surface, How I Learned To Drive is a disturbing play; a snapshot into one woman’s experience of underage sexual abuse meted out by a family member.
This production is the fourth by Bangkok-based theatre company Peel The Limelight, and is just as challenging – if not more so – than their previous shows.
The play, penned by American playwright Paula Vogel, follows the memories of L’il Bit, a woman who grew up in 1960s Maryland without a father figure, vulnerable to the seductions of her seemingly kind, Uncle Peck.
We follow the development of their inappropriate and ultimately abusive relationship by jumping around the timeline of her life, but always coming back to a baseline that is the touchstone of many a teenagers’ ascent into adulthood – a Drivers’ Education course.
Described as “one of the most discomfiting love stories to emerge from the American theatre,” Peel The Limelight certainly do justice to this important and confrontational piece of writing.
The challenging content is handled with sensitivity and touches of light by the cast, as they show without telling the contradictory and complex aspects of human nature with all its flaws. The small theatre space and near proximity to the actors compounds a claustrophobia and discomfort.
Uncle Peck, played by James Laver, is gentle and kind, if hopelessly flawed – a misunderstood man with an alcohol problem and a potential case of PTSD. Laver’s Peck is contemptibly human and pitiable; certainly not the paedophile monster often portrayed in the tabloids that are so easy to detach from. If anything, this makes him more dangerous: the predator that walks among us.
Even L’il Bit treats him with sympathy as she reflects on his abuse.
Siree (Wan) Riewpaiboon plays L’il Bit, and through the use of some clever costume changes and hairstyle alterations, miraculously convinces as both an 11-year old and a woman nearing 30. Her performance at every age is full of pathos; it’s particularly devastating to watch as her innocent 11-year old with a disarming grin is so suddenly robbed of her power and childhood.
Similarly, her mid-teen angst and gradual 20s enlightenment is authentic and resonating – the character is never overplayed and always compelling to watch.
L’il Bit’s character is refreshingly problematic, refusing to fit into the victim mold often expected of girls in her position, while her own various acts occasionally make for uncomfortable viewing, although never alter the fact of her exploitation.
Although the plot revolves around L’il Bit and Uncle Peck, there is a small number of minor characters and cameos, all played interchangeably by the unsung heroes of this production – the Greek Chorus.
The chorus, comprised of Nick Gallagher, Mandi Manson and Claire Stanley, lend some much-needed humour and lightness to the play and serve as the ensemble glue holding the scenes and set-pieces together. Not only do they act and serve as stage hands, they also sing and play instruments – their multi-disciplinary performances are almost reminiscent of the UK’s brilliant Kneehigh Theatre productions, if on a much smaller scale!
A special mention should be given to Stanley’s incredible singing voice; a totally unexpected revelation that left the audience open-mouthed at one point.
While we’d never describe How I Learned To Drive as a joyful romp, it is undoubtedly a superb piece of evocative theatre and a must-see for people willing to be confronted by such troubling taboos and difficult subject matter. Prepare to be challenged, and to enjoy the drive.
You can still buy tickets for How I Learned To Drive here – it runs from 3 – 13 March