By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

These are troubling times in America for many reasons:  Political, economic, social unrest, along with the proliferation of new crises that seem to pop up every day.   Half of the population of America has been experiencing these issues, in some form or another, that have plagued the “community of women” since the eviction from Eden. The other half is now just waking up.
Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “How I Learned to Drive,” is a brilliantly crafted, non-linear drama that addresses sexual misconduct and its impact on the lives of those affected (both women and men). Vogel’s play, now on stage, at CV REP is a cautionary tale insightfully directed by Joanne Gordon who returns to helm her third production for founding Artistic Director Ron Celona.

In keeping with Celona’s concept of designating a “theme” for CV REP season of plays, he has launched the theatre’s Eleventh season labeling it a season of “A handful of isms.”  And there are a lot of ‘isms’ out there from which to choose.
Sexual misconduct as a subject matter has been up close and personal in all branches of the media these days.  It’s a hot topic for workplace water cooler discussion, morning and evening chatting at home, and sometimes heated debates in our favorite watering holes, and even in the toniest of upscale establishments, to say nothing of the internet and TV.  Apparently, Sex and Sexism is America’s newest favorite pastime.

The play set in rural Maryland in the 1960’s follows the strained, sexual relationship between Li’l Bit (a sensational Angela Sauer), and her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck (a crafty Dennis Gersten), from her pre-adolescence through her teenage years into college and beyond.  Using the metaphor of driving and the issues of pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, the play explores the ideas of control and manipulation. The corollary that rape is an act of violence and not one of sexual desire, begs the question put forth concerning pedophilia and incest.  Pedophilia and/or incest, simply stated are betrayals of trust by adults, toward children.  And both are anathema.

Li’l Bit’s home life is two cuts above that of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road novels, in that marginal families seem to be victimized by tradition.  The husband is the boss, and the wife is a supplicant tied to tradition.  The boss can do no wrong – even in 1960’s America.  Her mother nicely played by Debra Cardona, also performs as the female Greek Chorus member, along with Charles Pasternak, as Male Greek Chorus member, and Jillian Taylor, as Teenage Greek Chorus member. This chorus is the glue that holds the production together when the timing and pacing of the production are moving just a tad shy of warp speed.

The arc of the story involving Ms. Sauer and Mr. Gersten’s relationship is driven by the artistry of the ensemble Greek Chorus, which becomes the engine that propels the story forward. The action is constantly moving forward when a memory from the past is introduced and performed and then moves forward again in a series of vignettes and memory points that underscore the feelings of Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck in these flashback scenes.
Just as Tennessee Williams uses Tom as the narrator in “The Glass Menagerie” playwright, Vogel employs Li”l Bit to address the audience as she retrieves the incidents from her memory bank; taking us along with her.  Vogel knows her characters well; however, the audience needs to stay engaged right from the opening monologue by Ms. Sauer.

One won’t be left behind if one finds themselves drifting back to their own childhoods and teenage years.  But they need to follow the ebb and flow of the action and the story.  It’s strong and compelling theatre.  Director Gordon is an award-winning director who knows her stuff and has orchestrated this outstanding cast to deliver the goods, which they do in spades.

As good as this impressive production is, however, the evening belongs to Angela Sauer and Dennis Gersten.  The two leads are always in their moments. Their on-stage chemistry is palpable.  We are drawn into this “Lolita-like play” whose scenes are handled with extreme care.  Ms. Sauer’s performance is a study in on-stage body movement and subtle shifting of young and confused emotions in her delivery as Li’l Bit.  It’s a memorable performance from a mature woman convincingly portraying characters ranging from 11 years old to 21.  I still remember Ms. Sauers’ stunning performance as Vanda in “Venus in Fur” last season at CV REP.

Mr. Gersten has the unenviable role from the audience point-of-view by playing the unsavory Uncle Peck (actors love to play villains and horrible people, considering them as ‘the juicy roles”).  Uncle Peck is crafty, sly, and a thoroughly dislikable monster.  However, it’s one finely judged performance by a fine actor/director.

The creative team led by director Joanne Gordon also plays a large role in this excellent production.  Once again, resident Set Designer and Emmy winner Jimmy Cuomo delivers an acting space that allows the actors to shine. Multiple Desert Theatre League (DTL) winning Lighting Designer Moira Wilke Whitaker paints her stage with lights that enhance the many mood inducing moments in the drama. Sound Designer Kate Fechtig, and Costumes by Lori Jo Wood, with Hair and Makeup by Lynda Shaeps, and Prop master Doug Morris who also serves as Associate Designer, complete the creative the team.  The stage manager is Louise Ross.
“How I Learned to Drive” performs without an Intermission (approximately 90 minutes) at CV REP Theatre, Rancho Mirage, CA and runs through November 18, 2018.  Don’t Miss It1.

Photo credits:CVRep.