When you hear the words “Pulitzer Prize winner” in front of something, you know you are in for a profound experience. In the realm of theater, the words on the page are only one component, and chances are you will experience it through a live performance when it crosses your path. How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel has become one of the most widely seen and best-known Pulitzer Prize winning plays of the past several decades, coming to acclaim in 1997. A local staging, directed by Attic Salt Theatre Company founder Marci Bernstein, runs through Friday, Nov. 18 in Asheville Community Theatre’s 35 Below.
In the play, Vogel takes on the world of sexual molestation in a sobering, moving and often funny 90-minute journey. The show follows the young woman, known only as Lil Bit, through her sexual experiences and discoveries with her Uncle. It focuses on her life from age 11 until her early 30s, alternating throughout that timeline. Set in the 1960s and slightly after, scenes are framed by a narrative and visual representation of old-fashioned driver’s ed-style film strips, projected on an LED TV screen onstage. There are parallels between driving and sexual awakenings that become even more pronounced as the story unfolds.
Trinity Smith Keel plays Lil Bit, expertly showing a young woman’s struggle as she comes to realize that the affections of her Uncle Peck may not be as innocent as she once believed. She is also surrounded by her loud, domineering and often bullying family, who berate and belittle her, creating fertile soil for the weeds of insecurity to grow. Starting with harmless driving lessons, she finds solace with Peck, who is not like the others in the family.
Jeff Catanese plays Uncle Peck with a Cheshire Cat grin and air of mischief that is more than a bit unsettling. The script allows that perhaps Peck is a damaged man, struggling with inner demons. Catanese is likable as an actor, which fights against the heavy current of his role’s complexities and the moral lines that he so willingly crosses. A trio of actors fills out the rest of the roles, serving as a Greek Chorus of sorts, playing family members and others who knowingly turn a blind eye to the unacceptable and inappropriate relationship. Henry Williamson, Chelsey Lee Gaddy and Samantha LeBrocq lend their considerable acting talents to this pivotal assortment of characters. The trio also serve as the stage crew, moving the minimal set pieces around to alter scene locations.
35 Below is a very small, often uncomfortable space. The cast is close at all times. The audience is all too aware of them, as they are of the audience. In a show of such deeply disturbing themes, it is even more difficult to watch at times because of such proximity — but that serves to drives the point of the play home.
WHAT: How I Learned To Drive by Attic Salt Theatre Company
WHERE: 35 Below, Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E Walnut St.
WHEN: Through Friday, Nov. 18. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $20