September in Houston is too hot to wear a hat, but if I wore one I'd fling it off my head in jubilation. Look to the Heights intersection of White Oak Drive and Harvard Street. That's where The Landing Theatre Company and Obsidian Theater are currently co-producing Paula Vogel's searing How I Learned to Drive. There are many other hats littered there. What a grand start to our fall theater season.
Playwright Vogel (The Baltimore Waltz; The Mineola Twins; The Long Christmas Ride Home) is socially conscious in the best way. She doesn't preach, scream, or stamp her feet to get our attention, but whispers confidentially, slyly inviting us into her distinctive theatrical world, until the small cumulative details eventually knock us over with devastating power. Hers is a particularly intense yet subtle voice, and Drive is her capstone, winning a deserved Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1998), as well as a shelf-full of other prestigious theater awards.
Vogel doesn't shy from controversial uncomfortable subjects, and Drive is saturated with the squirm-inducing topic of child sexual abuse. It's her highly expressive method – and this particular production's exquisite rendering – that keeps us mesmerized, voyeurs till the end. Vogel seduces us with the same wry charm Uncle Peck (an astoundingly acute Tom Stell) uses to seduce Lil' Bit (an exceptional Kara Greenberg).
Abuser and victim aren't laughing matters, but Vogel stitches her drama with ironic comic riffs, a wayward chronology, and quirky characters that allow us some relief. This is one breezy heartbreaker. We laugh at Lil' Bit's cracker upbringing where sex and boobs are discussed at the kitchen table as naturally as asking for more gravy, until the smut gets out of hand and our breathing stops. Ultimately, it's Vogel's non-sentimental attitude that's her ace. She may judge, but she doesn't condemn. Who isn't a victim, here? Uncle Peck, that oily good ol' boy who weasels himself ever closer to Lil' Bit, is destroyed at the end by his own demons, meanwhile his obsessions have rotted an entire family. As Lil' Bit, thinking back on her young life, asks, But what happened to him when he was 11 years old? No one's ever the same after victimization, the scars much too deep and everlasting, but is anyone a complete saint, or devil? Not entirely, in Vogel's expressionistic world.
Vogel sets her memory tale around a driver's manual, with scenes dispassionately introduced by titles such as “You and the reverse gear,” “Idling in neutral,” or “Defensive driving,” while Lil' Bit narrates her story, jumping back and forth in time. A giant road map sweeps from stage floor to cover the back wall. Traffic signs predict the action: yield, stop, one way!
Uncle Peck will indeed teach her to drive, seriously so, but his motives have nothing to do with auto safety. As family outsiders, these two are drawn to each other. Lil' Bit can't understand her exploding body, but who else is there in her crazed family to lend a sympathetic ear? He's the only one she can talk too. She knows full well what her beloved uncle wants; could a little grope, fondle, or glam photos in the basement be so bad? Precocious and not-too-innocent, Lil' Bit likes the attention and the power she wields over the older man. He treats her like an adult, is always respectful, and is willing to wait until she concedes, preferably when she's 18 and fully legal. He has all the time in the world.
In a frightful scene, made more creepy because we don't see his young victim, Uncle Peck inveigles Lil' Bit's cousin Bobby to join him at his secret hideout. Calm and insidious, Uncle Peck has not been idle waiting for her. Stell's stellar performance, replete with smothering southern fried charm, is the very portrait of a decent man rotting from within. Greenberg, all pouty innocence in the scenes set in Lil' Bit's youth, grows harder as she ages, a protective shell encasing her from the world. She looks back with wonder, and shock. Her life has been irreconcilably wrecked, some of it her own doing, and Greenberg winningly shows the giddy uplift and the leaden spiral.
Commenting on Lil' Bit and Uncle Peck are three Greek Choruses (Storey Hinojosa, Benjamin McLaughlin, and Lyndsay Sweeney) who play family members, school chums, and assorted supporting roles. Sweeney has the juiciest part and the best monologue, a two-parter entitled “A Mother's Guide to Social Drinking,” whereby Mom proceeds to get progressively smashed as she warns Lil' Bit about men's ultimate intentions. Her frenzied list of what drinks not to order on a date is as loopy as she is. Blowsy and belligerent, Mom must be led off the stage.
Superlatively directed by Paige Kiliany, Vogel's disquieting look into life's seedier side breathes an intoxicating fire. It warms the skin just enough before scalding. The subject may be off-putting, but I assure you, the telling is not. It is thrilling.
How I Learned to Drive continues through September 26 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. Purchase tickets at landingtheatre.org or call 562-502-7469. $20-$30.