The atmosphere in the rehearsal room is relaxed, despite the loaded conversation underway. Every moment is laden with subtext, woven through light-hearted banter and family tales.
Actors Jennifer Rohn and Dennis Trainor Jr. are working their way through a scene in Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive,” an Actors’ Shakespeare Project production that will run Nov. 3-25 in the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion. In the scene, the teenage Li’l Bit (Rohn) is celebrating passing her driver’s test by having dinner with her Uncle Peck (Trainor) at a restaurant that serves the underage teen multiple martinis. While the scene is filled with humor, including a hilarious monologue by Li’l Bit’s mother on the proper way a young lady should drink alcohol, an unsettling undercurrent of fear bubbles to the surface.
“Paula Vogel’s play is a sensual and beautiful exploration of her relationship to past trauma,” says director Elaine Vaan Hogue. “She looks at the experience through memories that are not in chronological order. That allows her to explore some of the murky areas of the story and the characters.”
Vogel’s play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998, focuses on Li’l Bit as an adult looking back on her childhood and adolescence, using the metaphor of learning to drive to frame her memories of an abusive relationship with her uncle. But Vogel, who only recently admitted the play was based on her own experience, isn’t content to draw superficial characterizations of villain and victim.
Rohn says she thinks of Li’l Bit as having the strength of a sapling planted in a city sidewalk surrounded by fencing.
“As you pass by these trees that shouldn’t really thrive,” she says, “you see, over time, the branches poke through and curve around the metal fencing. They adapt and defy limitations, finding strength within themselves. She’s not perfect, but she’s strong.”
Rohn played Li’l Bit two decades ago, and although she admits the character has never really left her, she says she wiped the slate clean for this production.
“I’m completely different from who I was then,” she says. “I’ve raised a child and experienced so much more of life. But the beauty and complexity of the story resonates with me now more than ever. Although the character goes back in time, I don’t pretend to be 11 or 17 years old, I am a woman in her 50s remembering, and it’s really compelling to me that she’s ready to tell her story now.”
Today, Rohn says, audiences may be more aware of young people who are alone and in need of attention, vulnerable to individuals who offer genuine affection and then take advantage to turn it into grooming.
Vaan Hogue says that in this post-MeToo era, women are looking at trauma from a different point of view.
“For Li’l Bit to heal and reclaim her agency, she needs to ‘run towards the danger,’ ” Vaan Hogue says, quoting from actor-director-screenwriter Sarah Polley’s collection of essays confronting her own memories. “The theatrical setting and the metaphor of learning to drive provide a safe space. And part of running toward danger requires we open ourselves up to exploring murky areas. That means it’s essential we like Uncle Peck.”
Trainor says Vogel’s script is so poetic it disarms the audience. Still, he says he is walking a very delicate line.
“She has written this very flawed character with such grace, humanity, and empathy,” he says, “but I have to find a very specific tone and not stray too far in one direction or the other.”
Trainor and Rohn have known each other for years, and he says that friendship helps create a level of comfort in the rehearsal room.
“I think what’s extraordinary is that Vogel refuses to see only simple black-and-white facts,” he says. “And although we say it’s the gray area, there’s actually a ton of color. That’s what we’re exploring in rehearsal. But what’s so beautiful is that she’s crafted the play as a lesson she has learned from confronting her own trauma, letting the audience find hope or courage from her experience.”
“Li’l Bit liberates herself from those memories that haunted her,” says Vaan Hogue. “She’ll always carry those scars, but her relationship to them has changed.”
“The sense of hope at the end of the play is just extraordinary,” says Rohn.
Broadway’s Sally Mayes at Club Café
Broadway musical theater veteran Sally Mayes (“She Loves Me,” “Das Barbecü,” “Pete ‘n’ Keely”) brings her cabaret act to Moonshine at Club Café Nov. 10 (clubcafe.com, $40). Mayes, who also appeared in the national tour of “Dirty Blonde” (as Mae West) and the Broadway revival of “Steel Magnolias,” is known for her powerful voice, scat singing, and compelling interpretations of musical-theater story songs. She has also recorded five solo albums.
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Nov. 3-25. $20-$59.50. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com