Paula Vogel's knotty, time-shifting memory play "How I Learned to Drive" takes a meandering road to a gloomy lesson learned for its main character, Li'l Bit.
Vogel's wildly praised 1997 meditation on sexual attraction, inappropriate complicity, and the complexity of our emotions bounces around in the mind of the ironically named Li'l Bit as she uneasily revisits the manipulative relationship her Uncle Peck slyly maintained with her.
In the crisply executed new production at Capital Stage, Stephanie Gularte's teenage Li'l Bit and James Hiser's adult Peck are haunted specters in the play's defining central relationship. The connection can be played in many ways with varying degrees of light and darkness, given the depth and subtle layers in Vogel's script. Here, in director Janis Stevens' tense, melancholy staging, Gularte and Hiser are doomed characters locked into a damaging, convoluted game of sexual cat and mouse.
While there's no doubt that Peck preys on Li'l Bit as only a pedophile would, Vogel doesn't completely demonize him. Peck's really the only person in Li'l Bit's life who talks to her or understands her, including the insensitive girls her own age. As much as she wants to, Li'l Bit can't disengage from Peck's attention.
In their family, she's either ridiculed for her budding physicality or demeaned for having aspirations that reach beyond their rural Maryland upbringing. The often comic Greek chorus that plays family members and helps narrate Li'l Bit's story is made up of Jamie Jones, Melanie Marshall and Eric Wheeler. The family holds on to a late-1950s sensibility even though the story mostly takes place in the mid-'60s.
But an enlightened sensitivity and sincerity are the alcoholic Peck's province. There's a lot of the old-fashioned Southern gentleman about him, and when Hiser smiles broadly as he often does, his whole face lights up. Peck is married to Li'l Bit's aunt and has known the girl since she was infant since, as he says in the play, he could hold her in the palm of his hand. As much as he openly lusts after his niece, Peck says nothing will happen unless she wants it to.
The scenes move back and forth through Li'l Bit's adolescent life and uneasy relationship with Peck, finally culminating in a revelatory 18th birthday party celebration that he's solemnly prepared for her in a hotel room.
There are clear parallels for this work, including Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," which Vogel said inspired her as she presented the story from the female point of view. David Harrower's torturous "Blackbird," which presents a revelatory view of a similar relationship between an older man and an underage girl, also offered inspiration.
Director Jonathan Williams designed the impressionistic set, and this dark fable seductively gets into your head.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
three 1/2 stars
What: Capital Stage produces Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy-drama. With Stephanie Gularte, Jamie Jones, Melanie Marshall, Eric Wheeler and James Hiser. Janis Stevens directs.
When: Continues at 7 p.m Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through June 17
Information: (916) 995-5464, www.capstage.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission.