An illuminated white line bisects the endless black of the Boston University Theatre’s Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Studio 210. Simple and stark, this white line is the lone scenic element in the Boston Center for American Performance’s minimalist production of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive”—yet, any further set would have been needless in this superbly acted, provocative memory play, which runs through Feb. 27.
At times, the line functions as the road on which narrator Li’l Bit (Alicia Hunt) takes driving lessons from her Uncle Peck (Mark Cohen) in 1960s rural Maryland. However, when the relationship between the two quickly turns sexual, the white line suggests more of a boundary—one that should not be traversed. It is reminiscent of one of Li’l Bit’s early encounters with Peck at the age of thirteen, when she tells him, “You’ve got to let me–draw the line. And once it’s drawn, you mustn’t cross it.”
Unfortunately, this line becomes blurred through Li’l Bit’s scattered recollections of moments with her uncle. Sometimes, Li’l Bit seems the helpless prey in Peck’s twisted game of pedophilia and incest; other instances, however, reveal a more complex reciprocated relationship between the two, driven by their mutual outsider tendencies.
The play’s success in examining this complicated relationship and its repercussions, then, hinges on the audience’s ability to empathize—even if only slightly—with Peck. Cohen achieves this with his haunting performance, making the abusive uncle more man than monster. His Peck is undeniably creepy, especially when delivering lines with his slow Southern drawl, but he is also unexpectedly kind and gentle. It is not hard to see why Li’l Bit—often dressed as Peck’s visual counterpart in one of many clever and appealing outfits by costume designer Adrienne Carlile—might have found companionship with this damaged man.
Cohen’s performance is especially moving in a one-sided conversation he delivers recalling an exchange with Li’l Bit’s cousin, Bobby, while teaching him how to fish. While he reassures the unseen boy that it is acceptable for men to cry, Cohen exudes a tenderness that renders him both pathetic and heartbreakingly sad.
As the object of Cohen’s affections, Hunt emanates an intensity and strength that suits the older, jaded Li’l Bit, specifically when she is narrating outside of the action. Hunt’s Li’l Bit is like the ostracized, yet infinitely cool chick that populates every teen movie—she knows more about the painful realities of the world than her frivolous classmates, even though that world-weariness came at a cost. However, when Li’l Bit is at her most vulnerable, Hunt cannot escape the fierceness that steers the rest of her performance. Otherwise poignant scenes are made less so by Hunt’s inability to act weak, distressed, or anxious.
Of the three actors who round out the cast, forming the versatile Greek chorus that morphs into various ensemble roles, Danya Cousins stands out, especially as Li’l Bit’s mother and Aunt Mary. Her increasingly drunken instructions for ladylike alcohol consumption are charming and comical, yet Cousins also delivers one of the most moving monologues of the play as Peck’s distressed wife Mary, counting the days until Li’l Bit leaves home.
Instances like Cousins’ drunken motherly advice highlight the many missed opportunities for dark humor throughout the show. The production’s sometimes-sluggish pace would have benefited from taking advantage of these wittier moments, rather than downplaying them to focus instead on Li’l Bit’s turbulent maturation. Still, director Tara L. Matkosky goes full throttle by the play’s final scenes, ending the show on a powerful, riveting note.
“How I Learned to Drive” is ultimately not about crossing ethical lines, but what happens after they are crossed. Matkosky handles this difficult material deftly, leaving ambiguous the true consequence of the incestuous relationship. Although the line is drawn across the stage, the road is wide open.
—Staff writer Ali R. Leskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.