Few current playwrights have attracted as much acclaim as Paula Vogel. Her works have become staples in theaters around the country, despite themes and topics that mass audiences might find distasteful.
"How I Learned to Drive" is perhaps her most acclaimed, and perhaps her most unsettling. It's the study of a years-long sexual relationship between an alcoholic married man and his underage niece. Through most of the play, the relationship is consensual.
Vogel won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Obie Award for the play.
As with most of her other plays, it's unusual in style and structure, with a non-sequential narrative, and voice-overs announcing scenes as if they were chapters in a driving instruction manual (e.g., "You and the Reverse Gear").
And as with some of her other plays, it's bewildering.
Vogel has said her goal was to write a play about pedophilia in which the audience had equal empa
thy for the adult and the child. The new staging from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training definitely achieves that divided sense of allegiance. The victim, nicknamed L'il Bit (played here, with effectively muted emotion, by Allie Henkel), seems largely to blame for encouraging the activity. The molester, Uncle Peck (Matthew R. Olson, who strikes a perfect balance of creepiness and pathos), seems like a decent guy, if you could overlook his pedophilia.
It's shocking and uncomfortable, but it's not clear why Vogel would want us to like Uncle Peck, or why she even wants to show us this situation, or why she introduces us to L'il Bit's repulsive family (Andrea Adnoff, Gracie Lee Brown and Paul Herbig), which revels in inappropriate sexual comments and gross behavior. If Vogel has anything to say about these people or about the human condition in general, it's not apparent. As a result, the play comes off as voyeuristic but feckless.
It's not the fault of the production. All five of the actors are effective. Director Jesse Jou makes some coy choices -- other productions have been much more graphic in their depiction of the relationship -- but he gives sense and power to the Vogel's non-chronological story-telling, And the set by Chris McVicker, with an ever-changing display of road signs, and the lights by Aaron Muhl are eerie and mood-enhancing.
But as with some of Vogel's other works, there's a sense of emotional detachment, and a sense that the playwright takes joy in presenting distasteful topics without having any point to make about them. ("Baltimore Waltz," for example, has characters drinking urine.)
With "How I Learned to Drive" she does indeed make the audience feel empathy for a pedophile. And since it's a respected play with a distinctive style, and wondrously written dialogue, it's a strong choice for FSU/Asolo Conservatory, offering an opportunity for the student actors to stretch their talents. And without exception, the actors here are up to the challenge.
But that doesn't necessarily make it compelling for audiences. It's an unsettling show to sit through, and because it merely depicts pedophilia, and looks at its causes and effects only in a most superficial way, it's ultimately pointless.
Details: It runs through March 9 at the Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets start at $28. Call 941-351-8000 or go to www.asolorep.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.