There are few if any wrong turns in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning memory play “How I Learned to Drive,” a feat all the more impressive when it involves such a complex and disturbing story.
Now at Actors’ Shakespeare Project in a riveting production directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, Vogel’s drama focuses on a woman who tries, via a series of flashbacks, to process the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her uncle during her pre-adolescent and adolescent years.
Jennifer Rohn and Dennis Trainor Jr. are nothing short of virtuosic, she as the woman, nicknamed L’il Bit in her youth, and he as the manipulative Uncle Peck.
Outwardly, L’il Bit is a noisily assertive bundle of energy, but she is deeply insecure and heartbreakingly vulnerable, a tricky balance skillfully sustained by Rohn. Trainor is equally adroit in finessing his character’s own set of contradictions — Uncle Peck, who is married to L’il Bit’s aunt, is a predator who actually seems to believe he is a good person.
Mostly set in rural Maryland, “How I Learned to Drive” flashes back to multiple periods in the 1960s and 1970s, out of sequence and framed by the driving lessons Uncle Peck gives L’il Bit. Whether on the homefront, at school (where her large breasts make her a target of sexual harassment), or in the car with Uncle Peck, the world L’il Bit has to navigate is a stifling environment in which males take what they want and females have to live with the repercussions.
While this is a play of wrenching power, it is primarily built on moment-by-moment psychological nuance rather than scorched-earth showdowns. (A program note quotes Vogel as saying “I’ve always felt this drama is most compelling when it’s in the gray, not in the black and white.")
Trainor’s Uncle Peck is not a slavering brute threatening and terrorizing his victim, but something more insidious and chilling: an outwardly jovial figure who deploys a show of empathy as the means to an exploitative end. Uncle Peck establishes the groundwork for abuse by persuading his young niece that he’s her ally in a crass and obtuse family, that they are both outsiders, and that, in a larger sense, it’s her-and-him-against-the-world.
So, for example, when he and L’il Bit are in a restaurant and they’re able to order martinis for her with no demurral from the waiter even though she’s not of drinking age, Uncle Peck frames it as the winking triumph of two co-conspirators who have put one over on the squares.
Director Vaan Hogue is as attentive to the play’s dynamics as to its mechanics, yielding a production of notable clarity and cohesion despite its many time jumps. She is mindful, too, of the play’s tonal shifts; when Uncle Peck manipulates L’il Bit into striking seductive poses during a photo session, the atmosphere inside the Roberts Studio Theatre is as taut as a violin string.
As a playwright and a teacher of playwriting at Brown and Yale, Vogel has been an influential figure in the contemporary American theater. You can discern traces of “How I Learned to Drive” in the Tony-winning musical “Fun Home," another work in which a woman tries to unpack a complicated past and calibrate its ongoing impact on her life.
“How I Learned to Drive” was presented on Broadway last year in a production featuring Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, reuniting the duo who starred in the off-Broadway production back in 1997. One of the high points of Boston theater in 2019 was the transcendent coproduction of Vogel’s “Indecent” by the Huntington Theatre Company and the Center Theatre Group.
In the role of L’il Bit’s mother, and very good as usual, is Sarah Newhouse, a founding company member of Actors’ Shakespeare Project. (The cast also includes Amy Griffin and Tommy Vines, playing multiple roles, including L’il Bit’s grandparents.) One of the most disconcerting moments in “How I Learned to Drive” is when we realize L’il Bit’s mother put her daughter in harm’s way by failing to follow through on her suspicions about Uncle Peck.
In another scene, when L’il Bit gets into a conversation with her mother and grandmother about what sexual intercourse is like the first time, the question she asks is a haunting one: “Why does everything have to hurt for girls?"
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
Play by Paula Vogel. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Nov. 25. Tickets $20-$59.50. 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com