The dynamic duo has struck again. Deejay Gray's daring vision, and Chelsea Burke's visionary direction bring to life the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning How I learned to Drive by Paula Vogel. The innocuous title belies the gut punch of a story.
I have long admired Gray's willingness to go where others fear to go. Over and over again she brings works that provoke, inspire, challenge, and move. And I've long been a fan of Burke's inspired direction. How I Learned to Drive is this team at its best.
Vogel's exceptional play tells the story of a young girl and the uncle who teaches her much more than just how to drive. It will resonate with all women who have been abused by an older authority figure and lived to tell the tale. For those who have had the good fortune to not experience such abuse, it illuminates just how insidiously and seamlessly a predator can assert his will and power over the people who trust him the most. For all of us, it is a call to action. Inaction never benefits the victim.
Lil Bit (Juliana Caycedo) and her uncle Peck (Jeffrey Cole) have a special relationship. She relies on him for guidance, and he looks to her for the companionship and intimacy he lacks from his wife. And as often happens with young girls who are victims of predators, her family blames this inappropriate relationship on her feminine wiles, and fiery ways.
Told through a series of driving lessons that take us from the present lesson - how to accelerate, for example- into reverse- a look at the history of the relationship from where it began, How I Learned to Drive is a surprisingly charming and funny look at a tragic family drama.
Caycedo and Cole shone in their respective roles, and the support characters portrayed by Bianca Bryan (female Greek chorus), Mahlon Raoufi (male Greek chorus) and the always hilarious Maggie Bavolack (teenage Greek chorus) brought very fine performances.
This was a tough show to watch. The slow-build of Uncle Peck's praying on Lil Bit made me cringe. Whether you have a "me too" story or not, this experience should leave you very uncomfortable. And that's good. We should squirm. We should be uncomfortable. We should never remain silent.
Richmond will not be the same when Deejay Gray leaves town. I have counted on Gray and TheatreLab for the kind of theatre that I am most drawn to - theatre that takes a stand, that pushes the envelope, that educates, and that touches our humanity.
I should note that How I Learned to Drive, like many shows in Richmond, received a standing ovation. However, this ovation was spontaneous and deserved rather than perfunctory. I believe we should be more stingy with our ovations, and do more standing up against injustice. I believe that's what TheatreLab has always been about.
There are two more opportunities for exceptional theatre before TheatreLab closes its doors and Gray takes flight for New York City. Augusta Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom directed by Katrinah Carol Lewis opens in April, and Lynn Nottage's Sweat directed by Gray themselves, opens in June. Don't miss out.
Richmond will be losing a landmark theatre, and an artistic director whose vision will leave an indelible mark on local theatre.