“How I Learned to Drive” at the Paramount Theatre

By Anna Holloway

Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-prize winning play was given a spare and lean treatment at the Paramount Theatre. 

Produced and directed by George Adams, the episodic drama examines issues of control and manipulation in a somewhat dysfunctional family in suburban Maryland. 

Vogel’s script moves us back and forth in time—1989, 1999, 1985, the present—as the primary voice, Li’l Bit, narrates the story of her relationship with her aunt Mary’s husband, her uncle Peck.  The only family member who supports her desire to go to college and leave the area, Peck is also a sexual molester. 

The show is an emotionally challenging piece; it can be a trigger for those dealing with the post-traumatic stress of sexual molestation.  Although the topics of sex and sexual situations are present throughout the show, there is no nudity and very little explicit sexual action.

The production at the Paramount features CheyAnne Strickler as Li’l Bit and John Ashton Randolph as Uncle Peck.  All supporting characters are played by a Chorus of three: Kristi Choplin, Cate Jones, and Derek Kenney. 

Strickler’s sweetness, confusion, and pain are evocative of the horrors of Li’l Bit’s life.  Randolph gives us a stolid, ‘nice guy’ version of Peck; the earnestness and apparent honesty of manner served as a counter to the definitely creepy relationship he offers his niece. 

Choplin, Jones, and Kenney flitted from character to character.  Choplin was very effective as Li’l Bit’s mother and aunt, playing the sisters with clear differences and appropriate similarities.  Jones, the primary ‘chorus’ voice, also ‘ghosted’ Li’l Bit’s voice in one intense scene, separating the elements further.  Kenney filled in as a whole range of male characters, most of them family.  The three choroi gave us the background of patriarchal control that is the societal ‘norm’ of the family, and in which the molestation can be a protected, unnamed reality.

There is one flaw in this production; the missing element is the charm of the molester.  Molesters are almost always charming.  There must have been some mode of grooming; Vogel only implies it and leaves it for the actors to show us.  We see that Li’l Bit has obvious power in the relationship; we don’t see how that conversion of power occurs.  The overall stolidity of Peck and the perpetual sweetness of Li’l Bit tends to permit more distance than engagement.

In the black box Paramount Theatre, the story evolves in open darkness enclosed in light.  The simple sets and narrative style make the grim and layered story stand out beyond the mere physical elements of staging and direction.  It’s an ideal format for this kind of show.

The final weekend performances of “How I Learned to Drive” are February 23, 24, 25 at 8:00 in the Paramount Theatre at 11 N. Lee, Oklahoma City, just north of NOIR Bistro on Sheridan. 

Anna Holloway is a local reviewer, preacher, and theatre professional who has worked for many of Oklahoma City’s finest theatre companies. Her print reviews can be found in the Oklahoman from time to time, and she posts on the NewsOK blog occasionally as well. Anna has taught writing skills at OU and is an editor for academic and professional documents.