There are several good and right reasons to see Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive, currently playing on the intimate Neuhaus stage, downstairs at the Alley. But the best and most visceral and moving reason would be James Black's wondrous and disturbing performance as the sad-sack pedophile Uncle Peck (Vogel's irony is absolutely intended).
Uncle Peck is every parent's worst nightmare. On the surface, he's a sorrowful kind of sweet guy. Sure, he drinks a bit, but that's only because he's got "a fire in his heart." And then there's that quiet, watchful way he's got about him that makes him seem like he's always just a little out of step with everybody else. And don't even mention the war. Something real bad happened to Uncle Peck in the war. But just watch him tie on that ladies' apron and wash up the dishes after supper. And when he does open up to talk a bit, he sounds like a minor poet, saying such things as "a pompano is a very shy, mercurial fish."
He's a good listener, too. That's what 11-year-old Li'l Bit (Sherri Parker Lee) likes best about Uncle Peck. He listens. And he takes her fishing, and off to special private places in the woods. And best of all, he takes her driving, the kind of driving that happens out on long, lonely country roads in the deep dark of night.
A parent's worst nightmare, indeed.
Surely though, without a performance as subtle and mesmerizing and artfully nuanced as James Black's, this shuffling, big-footed, shy-guy character could not so fully occupy this heartbreaking and paradoxical space that is both tender and dangerous, kind and poisonous, sympathetic and utterly monstrous.
Black does, of course, get tons of help from Vogel's incantatory script. These words, these scenes, are crafted like some long, slow spiral down a mountain road. Once on it, you must follow, witnessing every moment until the painful end.
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The script winds through time, moving forward, then backward, then forward again. It is often outrageously funny, even as it chills the goose bumps on your arm. It is intensely, even brilliantly ironic. The ever avuncular Peck assures Li'l Bit during a driving lesson, saying, don't worry, "I will never touch you while you're driving a car." And Li'l Bit's mother gets rip-roaring drunk as she wails out all her good motherly advice on how a lady recovers her poise in the bathroom after one too many. Dunk your head in water, she hollers, because "a wet woman is still less conspicuous than a drunk one."
Black also gets terrific support from the "Greek Chorus" of two women (Elizabeth Heflin and Krista Forster) and one man (Kevin Waldron) who do a fine job with a series of roles, including sock-hop friends and Li'l Bit's shameful family.
It's no wonder this intelligent, intuitive girl, played with sweet sincerity by Lee, can't simply tell her criminal uncle where to go. Most everyone in her family drinks too much. Mothers refuse to help their children through troubled times. "You've made your bed, now lie in it," says grandmother to mother, mother to daughter, aunt to niece. And Uncle Peck, it seems, had his own childhood monster. Thus, with Mark Ramont's skillful and discreet direction, a fine and sometimes brilliant cast, and Kevin Rigdon's lovely lighting, Vogel's sad theme is made real. Familial history informs every moment of our lives, and it keeps up with us, no matter how fast we drive. Vogel's last image pointedly dramatizes this painful truth. Familial history is in the back seat forever, reminding us from where we came, reminding us who we are.
How I Learned to Drive runs through October 25 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8421. $1528.