Story: Li’l Bit comes from a small, poor family in rural Maryland. She lives with her mother and also regularly sees her grandmother and grandfather as well as her mother’s sister, Aunt Mary, and Mary’s husband Peck. Li’l Bit tells us that everyone in her family is known by a nickname with sexual connotations, and the family’s dinners frequently turn coarse and vulgar as her uneducated grandfather says whatever comes into his mind. Li’l Bit dreams of going to college, but only Uncle Peck nurtures that thought.
Uncle Peck seems to have more than an avuncular interest in his niece, but everyone turns a blind eye to their relationship. As Li’l Bit gets older, Uncle Peck gets bolder in his desires, drawing uncomfortably close to Li’l Bit while he teaches her to drive, even entrusting her with his prized Cadillac. While Li’l Bit repulses his advances, she also somehow seems drawn to him, a conflict that has lingering and damaging consequences.
Highlights: Muddy Waters Theatre closes out its 2011 schedule devoted to the works of playwright Paula Vogel with a brilliant and incisive interpretation of her 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Guided smoothly and reassuringly by director Milton Zoth, his quintet of players deliver stellar performances that resonate long after the 90-minute, one-act piece has ended. It’s an excellent conclusion to a most interesting Muddy Waters season.
Other Info: Everything works beautifully in this compelling and fascinating presentation that is engaging and gripping from start to finish. A series of arresting and troubling video projections compiled by Michael Perkins, based on Vogel’s own notes, looms over the rustic set designed by Cristie Johnston that is hauntingly illuminated by Jim Wulfsong’s lighting design.
Jerry McAdams’ wistful sound design incorporates a medley of tunes that evoke eras in Li’l Bit’s life, from her childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s to present-day Baltimore in 1992, when she narrates her reflective tale. Costumes designed by Theresa Loebl range from the dowdy wardrobe of the grandparents to Uncle Peck’s more businesslike attire and Li’l Bits teen togs, and Cindy Duggan’s choreography is put to judicious use on the economic stage.
The acting is notable for its brilliance and precision. Laurie McConnell delivers a superior performance as the troubled and lonely Li’l Bit. She brings depth and remarkable latitude to the portrayal, ranging from the innate good nature and naivete of an 11-year-old to the stinging hurt and betrayal felt by Li’l Bit as a college freshman, all the while involved in a damaging dance of emotions with her uncle.
As Uncle Peck, B Weller is outstanding depicting the many facets of Peck’s tortured soul, whether warding off inquiries by Li’l Peck about his wartime service or gazing with an unfulfilled longing and sexual frustration at his niece as she engages in a holiday conversation with her mother. Weller is thoroughly consistent in the portrayal, even when away from center stage, making it all the more affecting.
Michael Brightman, Kimberly Sansone and Denise Saylor smartly fill the roles of the Male Chorus, Female Chorus and Teenage Chorus, respectively. Each shines in several parts, notably Brightman as the ill-mannered grandpa, Sansone as the world-weary Aunt Mary and Saylor simply terrific as the child-bride grandma who keeps her lecherous husband close to home with her kitchen and her bed.
Vogel richly deserved a Pulitzer Prize for this wonderfully written and evocative tale of a youth forever tarnished by an unforgettable travelogue of experiences that steer the adult Li’l Bit evermore. How I Learned to Drive is a theatrical journey fueled by the highest-caliber octane.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: Muddy Waters Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, Grand at Olive
Dates: November 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20