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Sexual abuse is much in the news these days. It seems one can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing a headline of the latest well-known figure accused of sexual abuse/harassment. And those are just the ones deemed “newsworthy.” Then there are the many sexual predators out there who never make the news; the ones at your job, or living next door, or down the street, or in your house. They come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life--rich and poor; urban, suburban, country; male and female; young and old. Included in this sorry group are the ones who prey on children.

Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, How I Learned to Drive, now at Subversive Theatre, provides chapter and verse on how a child is used by someone she loves and trusts and is manipulated into being his sex object. The play is very well written, very engrossing and very disturbing. It is structured to move back and forth in time, each scene titled as though from a driving manual: Moving from First to Second Gear, Implied Consent. Video Design by Chris Wilson has the titles projected onto screens with fine voiceovers by Jane Cudmore explaining them. As each scene unfolds, we learn more about our narrator L’il Bit’s experiences with her family, and particularly her Uncle Peck. There are moments of humor in this sad tale, like a very funny monologue by L’il Bit’s mother, “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking.”

Upon entering the Manny Fried Playhouse, we are greeted by two screens with iconic pictures from the 1950s of Vargas models suggestively draped on Chevys. Cars and sex. Sex and cars. They are intertwined in our culture. In a very telling monologue, Uncle Peck explains to L’il Bit in great detail why this is so.

The setting is rural Maryland, a bucolic place with a nasty history of slavery and civil war. The family is what one might politely call “backwoods;” “ignorant” is a less polite but accurate term. They sit around the table and laugh as any family might. However, what they’re laughing about is how everyone in the family is nick-named for their genitalia.

As the play begins, L’il Bit (you’ll find out where that name came from) is a young girl about to go college–the first in the family. As the narrator of her own story, she takes us back and forth in time, bouncing around from 1962 to 1986, and we learn how she learned to drive.

Peck is the predatory uncle who is her driving instructor. He uses and abuses her and grooms her to be his plaything, all the while explaining the finer points of driving a car. While it would be so much easier to just dismiss Uncle Peck as not worth our consideration, John Profeta plays him as a complex person who is subject to internal demons that are hinted at, but never fully detailed. Mr. Profeta is impeccable in the role as he inhabits a person who is more than just a monster, but so much less than a man. He is so convincing as the complex country boy who haunted the backroads of South Carolina in his Chevy, and uses his love of cars to entice his niece, that I reached out to him briefly after the play to get a sense of him outside of his role. He is that convincing. As Uncle Peck, he oozes slimy southern charm as he becomes more and more obsessed with his niece, all the while gradually training her to be his lover.

Andrea Golhardt is L’il Bit, a beautiful young woman with golden hair and large breasts, whose being has been sexualized from day one by her family, by kids at school, and of course, by her Uncle Peck. Ms. Golhardt is very good in the role. She has a few less believable moments, but on the whole she moves from being 18 to 29 to 13 years old with ease, as she fights her own demons and realizes what has been done to her.

The supporting cast have several roles and some fine moments. Jenny Gembka as L’il Bit’s mother, is very funny in her “Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking” monologue. Brittany Germano belts out “Dream Baby.” Roy Orbison would be pleased, no doubt. Justin Fiordaliso, Theresa DMuro Wilber and Molly/Oliver Lewars round out the cast.

Director Kelly M. Beuth has put together a well-acted production that, in less adept hands, could have slipped into simply an exercise in sleaze and creepiness, but most assuredly does not. We witness real people who are plagued by their own inadequacies and self-delusions, and how those things play out in life.

How I Learned to Drive

Thu Jan 18th → Sat Feb 10th
Repeats: Thu, Fri, Sat
The Manny Fried Playhouse
255 Great Arrow Ave., third floor Buffalo, NY 14207
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Ann Marie Cusella

Theater lover, psychotherapist, founder of Cultivate Joy Within, former actor, school owner, etc.
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Once In My Lifetime