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“How I Learned to Drive” Powerful Drama at Capital Stage

Capital Stage’s latest production, “How I Learned to Drive,” fits right in with the theater’s mission which reads in part:  "dedicated to bringing bold, lively productions" with "intimate" as a by word. The play certainly is bold, some critics call controversial.  It is a very intimate view into an inappropriate relationship.  Yes there are lots of lively, even very funny, scenes.   And it is all very live thanks to Cap Stage’s new J Street space.

American playwright Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize for this fictional story of a girl who was molested by her aunt’s husband throughout her teens. The family’s reaction to the abuse might be more shocking that what actually took place.  Your reaction to the play may surprise or even shock you.  A lot is left to each audience member to decide what really did happen and then think about how they react of what did go on between this girl and her uncle.

Much of this enterprise rests on the shoulders of Capital Stage founder and artistic director Stephanie

Gularte. She takes on the leading role of Li’Bit from the troubled 11-year-old to well into adulthood, but not in that order. It is pure

Gularte magic.

Gularte performance is scary in a very good way throughout the play, as her character drops into different ages and raises questions like seduced/seductress?, severely damaged/healthy?

Stephanie Gilarte as Li’l Bit, James Hiser as Peck

James Hiser,  MFA- UC Davis, matches

Gularte’s intensity as Uncle Peck. He works to seduce the audience along with Li’Bit, giving an eye-opening look at how slick abusers can be, plying attention on the victim, while repeating creepy phrases like, “Nothing is going to happen until you want it to.”

Vogel’s plot makes it clear it isn’t about gender for Uncle Peck — it’s the age difference and the power over the victim. His line, “Then I’ll wait. I’m a very patient man. I’ve been waiting for a very long time. I don’t mind waiting,” sends shivers down the spine.

A Greek chorus comments on the actions and performs several other roles, including other family members.

If there is any quibble with Vogel’s play, it is that the other family members lean toward stereotypes, suggesting that predatory behavior, incest and child abuse are a white trash phenomenon.

Jamie Jones, who has given wonderful performances on every Equity stage in Sacramento, performs the role of the female Greek chorus. One of the funnier scenes in the play involves Jones as the mother in a long-running monologue about how a young girl protects herself from predatory men, while still managing to drink copious amounts of alcohol. 

Cap Stage regular Erik Wheeler plays the male Greek chorus with the grandfather character as the most central. Wheeler brings his sly performance to the other characters as well, especially the waiter.

Melanie Marshall is the teenage Greek chorus. While also dealing with a somewhat stereotypic character in the grandmother, she is very funny.

Melanie Marshall, Eric Wheeler and Jamie Jones

Associate artist Janis Stevens, known as a powerful actor and director, directs with a steady hand. She makes great use of Jonathan Williams’ sparse but clever set design with action starting in one location while it is ending on another. Central to Williams design and much of the action is the cherry red vinyl front bench car seat, the place where Uncle Peck is most in control.

Stevens lets the action pause for a moment here and there to allow some things to sink in just a little.

Tough stories can make great drama. Were you not entertained by “How to Kill a Mockingbird” while learning several lessons about life? “How I Learned to Drive” addresses the tough but common and intertwined issues of predatory behavior, child abuse and incest in a truly dramatic, engaging, and yes, entertaining way. The Capital Stage cast have a strong grasp of the material and give a near perfect performance.  In great theater it does not always take lighting effects, pyrotechnics, and tricks to create fireworks on the stage.  Cap Stage proves again with "How I Learned to Drive"  that good material plus great talent equals great theatre.

“How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel         Capital Stage
Through June 17, 2012                 More Information and Tickets


Editor’s note: Edits have been made to actress Stephanie Gularte’s name after publishing.

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