The Vagina Monologues

at Goodman Theatre Studio

How I Learned to Drive

Northlight Theatre

at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Carol Burbank

Last weekend director Susan V. Booth reminded audiences once again that feminist theater can both pack an emotional punch and be fabulously entertaining. Art and politics were the perfect mix in her Valentine’s Day production of Eve Ensler’s funny, poignant ethnography of women’s sexuality, The Vagina Monologues. And Booth showed an even deeper commitment to risky stories of women’s survival in her tightly staged, intelligent production of Paula Vogel’s witty, devastating play How I Learned to Drive for Northlight Theatre.

The Vagina Monologues is an Obie-winning work, based on Ensler’s interviews with women, at the center of a new movement. Valentine’s Day 1999 was the second annual “V-Day,” part of an international campaign encouraging the use of theater to raise awareness of violence against women. Ensler herself staged the first benefit in New York in 1998 with an all-star cast that included Glenn Close, Lily Tomlin, Calista Flockhart, and Whoopi Goldberg. Booth’s production this year at the Goodman studio was a benefit for Center Theater’s new antiviolence program, TeenReach. Its powerful, diverse cast of ten included Jenny Magnus, MaryAnn Thebus, Jennifer Biddle, Kimberlee Soo White, and Alexandra Billings in these remarkable stories about sex, childbirth, rape, and menstruation, not to mention deceptively simple meditations on the nature of that rarely discussed body part, the vagina. Booth allowed each actor to find her center in these monologues, dialogues, and choral interludes, then to fly into lyrical confessions. The cast’s emotional honesty and joy in the script were obvious; the evening felt more like an intimate event in a salon than a theater piece.

Billings–a transsexual (or, if you prefer, a self-made woman)–had the most wickedly poetic monologue, “Reclaiming Cunt,” a Gertrude Stein-esque riff on a medieval word most often used as an insult. Another story, about a girl born without a vagina, even echoes Billings’s surgically constructed womanhood, creating a sense of inclusion for all women. The most powerful stories came from Bosnian women who’d survived the rape camps; also strong was a reenactment of Ensler’s interview with a six-year-old girl who said her vagina smelled like “snowflakes” and had “a really, really smart brain” deep inside.

Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning memory play tells the story of Li’l Bit, a woman who’d been molested by an uncle who also gave her driving lessons and supported her wish to go to college. Vogel has called this play her “Lolita,” after Nabokov’s 1955 novel about a middle-aged man involved with a young girl. Her script shows us a present-day Lolita’s equally tortured side of the story, capturing not only the girl’s suffering but the pederast’s vulnerability and Li’l Bit’s collusion in her own oppression. But despite its grim subject, How I Learned to Drive is genuinely funny, even charming. Vogel leads the audience into the past and back to the present, where an adult Li’l Bit, haunted by her Uncle Peck, is trying to learn to understand and forgive his behavior. Vogel’s simple yet layered story is written with such grace and almost Spartan clarity that it requires little tinkering, but Booth directs with just enough assertiveness to make the story’s intimate jokes and secrets irresistible.

Booth has directed Vogel’s difficult play three times before, most recently for Chicago Theatres on the Air, and her confidence is evident in her spare staging and blunt direction. Using simple chairs against a backdrop of three screens that serve as mobile walls or catch and twist projected images, Booth lets the woman’s memories and complicated emotions develop in slow motion–a sort of darkroom revelation. It’s not clear from the final scene, when Li’l Bit’s secret is fully revealed, whether the character will live to forgive and forget, as she hopes. But thanks to restrained performances by an excellent cast, the play creates a visceral catharsis that left me exhausted and moved, hopeful but without false cheer.

Mariann Mayberry (who shone in Steppenwolf’s 1998 production of The Berlin Circle) holds herself back in this piece, negotiating Li’l Bit’s complicated roles as both participant and narrator with an almost ritual irony. This distance would have hobbled a lesser play, but here it helps us appreciate the character’s humor and strength even as we witness the outrageous cruelty of her uncle’s obsession. Mayberry manages to convey a brutal mix of courage and despair in Li’l Bit’s grin, and in each molestation scene–generally abstracted to create the dreamlike intensity of memory–Uncle Peck’s manipulations make it clear that her implied consent is ultimately as painful as a brutal rape.

Scott Jaeck gives Uncle Peck an unexpected dignity and gentle vulnerability; the character’s obvious brutality is only part of his character. We never learn who molested Uncle Peck, but his misery and even his respect for Li’l Bit are clear signals that he’s not an evil man. Through this contradiction, Vogel places How I Learned to Drive in the uncomfortable gray zone of human experience. Jaeck embodies the ironies of his role with such understated quietness in this beautiful performance that it’s impossible to dismiss Uncle Peck as the villain. I expected to commiserate with Li’l Bit; I didn’t expect to feel sad for Uncle Peck as well.

Vogel’s three-member chorus take on multiple roles and maintain the comedy, sporting sunglasses in their generic roles as witnesses to the story and slipping easily into caricatures of family members, waiters, and fellow travelers. Natalie West plays the mothers, including a star turn in which Li’l Bit’s mom offers hilarious advice in “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking.” West also plays Uncle Peck’s wife, delivering one of the play’s more chilling monologues, showing how knowledge and denial can blend into rage and neglect. Sarah Watson and Maurice Ralston fill out the other characters with clarity and intelligence.

The success of this choral character switching is due in large part to Linda Roethke’s costuming choices, whether bold transformations of the actor or little touches. Dressing Watson in a convincing fat suit, she ages the young actor 40 years, and she uses easily identified, quickly changed accessories to suggest different roles and time periods–a hair band, baseball cap, or leather jacket. Todd Rosenthal’s screens and projected images bring remembered rooms and events into sharp focus, while Liz Lee’s lighting creates distinct spaces on what first seems a naked stage, casting shadows that obscure but never completely hide the watchful chorus and that occasionally emphasize Uncle Peck’s lurking presence.

As I was leaving the theater, I heard a man say to his wife, “You knew what this was about–why did you want us to see it?” Still wrenched by the last scene, I could understand his troubled reaction. How I Learned to Drive isn’t an easy play. But Vogel’s story is so beautifully written and Booth’s direction is so true to the script that it would be a mistake to miss this production just because the topic makes us squeamish. Too many plays, movies, and television shows explore incest and child molestation with far less subtlety and humor. Such stories can’t be avoided anymore, so we might as well honor the ones that do a good job of telling the complicated truths about family systems that support hidden violence and victimize everyone, including the molester.

Last weekend Booth gave me a chance to appreciate two evenings full of joy and irreverence and pain, journeys both haunting and celebratory. Committed to the illumination of gray areas in life and art, she reveals an honesty that’s rare, even in the theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): How I Learned to Drive theater still by Michael Brosilow.