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Lolita of the Chesapeake


How I Learned to Drive

FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training

Directed by Jesse Jou

SARASOTA – It's difficult to tackle uncomfortable subjects like pedophilia, incest and molestation in any artistic medium, let alone the intimate environs of stage theater. The 1955 novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is one of the few works that somehow manages to palliate such subject matter and this unique quality has gone so far as to render it eponymous in expressing such elements within our colloquial vernacular. Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive might not be Lolita, but it is cut from the same cloth and sits just beneath it in a small group of works that manage to successfully explore the cause and effect of taboos that might otherwise too easily escape examination.

photo by Frank Atura

Vogel employs a myriad of effective devices to soften the blows, stage equivalents of quick-cut cinematography that serve to weave in and out of the seedy narrative, while allowing audience members to almost levitate above the experience, just as we imagine the characters themselves might, in terms of viewing their participation in their own lives.

The play is framed by scene titles, announced like chapter headings of a How to Operate a Motor Vehicle manual by an innocuously-pleasant voice that calls to mind the tags on an audio book. The spartan set is dominated by coinciding road signs and other symbols that allow the main character, referred to only by her family nickname Li'l Bit (Allie Henkel), to relate her story as to how childhood driving lessons from her Uncle Peck (Mathew R. Olson) would lead to a deeply inappropriate and profoundly confusing relationship throughout her most formative years, one that would ultimately stunt her emotional development and destroy her familial relationships.

Vogel plays fast and loose with chronology, nimbly weaving through flashbacks and forward leaps until a rhythm is established in which linear time is all but incidental and we end at the beginning, as seen from present time. In early scenes, some of the more sordid events are play-acted from parallel positions with both actors facing the audience when they would be turned toward each other, which serves to both provide a safe initial distance to the voyeuristic aspects of the play and amplify the shock value when the device is abandoned near the end.

photo by Frank Atura

Henkel and Olsen had the opportunity to hone their chemistry for such a role pairing when they starred opposite each other in the Conservatory's first installment of this season's Late Night series, an ambitious production of Mamet's Oleana that was entirely produced by FSU/Asolo Conservatory students for a single, one-night-only performance. Playing a college professor and the female student who accuses him of sexual harassment and attempted rape, the duo's chemistry seems to have fully ripened and there are moments when they attain a rare oneness on stage.

Henkel has continued to demonstrate a poignancy that is not common in young stage actors, while Olsen has again proven skilfully adept at playing characters well beyond his actual age, managing to endow Uncle Peck with the sort of old soul and believable Southern Gothic persona that adds a key layer of genuineness to the role.

The Greek chorus of supporting roles are played well by Andrea Adnoff, Gracie Lee Brown and Paul Herbig. Brown was a particularly strong presence as Peck's besmirched wife, while Adnoff earns extra points for a highly competent vocal performance that she manages to cast with remarkable ease, considering she is rearranging set pieces while singing. How I Learned to Drive, for which Vogel was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, runs through March 9 at the Cook Theatre in the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts. For ticket information visit the Asolo Rep website.

photo by Frank Atura

Dennis Maley is TBT's editor and featured political columnist. His regular column appears every Thursday and Sunday. He occasionally reviews local theater purely out of love for the art form and claims no particular expertise beyond his considerable experience as an audience member. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com.You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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