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HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE at Subversive might be 20 years old, but its time has come.

THE BASICS: HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE, the multiple-award winning 1997 play by Paula Vogel, presented by Subversive Theatre, directed by Kelly M. Beuth, starring Andrea Gollhardt and John Profeta, with the “Greek Chorus” of Brittany Germano, Theresa DiMuro-Wilber, Justin Fiordaliso, Jenny Gembka, and Molly/Oliver Lewars, opened January 18 and runs through February 10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. at The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Avenue, third floor (462-5549) Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Li’l Bit is an intelligent girl surrounded by backwards family role models in rural Maryland who becomes attached to her more worldly and sympathetic Uncle Peck (an uncle through marriage). Back from the war, he has a bigger vision of the world and of a future for the girl, including college. He listens to her, encourages her, and gives her a gift of freedom by teaching her how to drive. But he can’t keep his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road, and little by little his neediness robs her of the freedom to love life.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Coinciding with the #metoo and Time’s Up movements, this January saw the second annual Women’s March in Washington D.C., and the revitalization of the International Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Buffalo also held a march, and, through the efforts of Lara D. Haberberger, the Brazen-Faced Varlets are bringing a taste of that festival, presenting WE HAVE ISSUES on Saturday, January 27 at 1 p.m. at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site.

But look around! While Hollywood alternately wrings its hands or congratulates itself on finally recognizing women writers and directors, here in Buffalo this January we have a number of plays on the boards written by women, directed by women, or both. Over at The Paul Robeson Theatre, Paulette D. Harris is directing Dominique Morisseau’s SKELETON CREW. At Road Less Traveled Productions Katie Mallinson is directing Jennifer Haley’s THE NETHER. Lynn Kurdziel-Formato is directing MAMMA MIA! at the Kavinoky; Victoria Perez is directing AN ACT OF GOD at O’Connell & Company; and Betsy Bittar is directing rehearsals of WAY BACK WHEN at the New Phoenix Theatre. And we have Kelly Beuth directing the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE by Paula Vogel at Subversive.

So, yes, “we’ve come a long way, baby” and we have strong capable women in the theater. But then, in her Director’s Notes, Beuth writes that “Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. One out of every six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime…. 82% of all victims under eighteen are female…. This is our reality. This is not acceptable.”

Reality, though, unlike a 2-second gif on Facebook, or a 240-character Tweet, or even a 9-minute long stump speech by Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globe Awards, is complicated.

Reality, though, unlike a 2-second gif on Facebook, or a 240-character Tweet, or even a 9-minute long stump speech by Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globe Awards, is complicated. And that’s where playwright Paula Vogel rushes in where others fear to tread. She’s nobody’s fool. She’s a playwright and in that profession the number one question, perhaps the only question, is this: What motivates the characters?  What do they want? Or, deeper, what do they need? Or, rarely talked about, what is their deepest fear?

The young girl, Li’l Bit, wants someone to admire her for more than her body; she needs an intellectual equal; she wants to be able to control her life; she fears turning into her mother. Her Uncle Peck needs an intellectual equal and a protégé, he wants his life to have meaning, but he also needs love, or at least the kind of love that is missing from his marriage, and that’s where things go awry.

Here is just one of the nuanced scenes from the play in which the teenaged Li’l Bit (the play is told in flashbacks) is concerned about her Uncle Peck’s drinking. They are in the kitchen where he is washing the dinner dishes (he’s not a totally bad guy). The dialog has been edited and collapsed for continuity.

PECK: Well, Li’l Bit – let me explain it this way. There are some people who have a … a “fire” in the belly. I think they go to work on Wall Street or they run for office. And then there are people who have a “fire” in their heads – and they become writers or scientists or historians. You. You’ve got a “fire” in the head. And then there are people like me. I have a fire in my heart. And sometimes the drinking helps.

L’IL BIT: Does it help – to talk to me?… I could make a deal with you, Uncle Peck. We could meet and talk – once a week. You could just store up whatever’s bothering you during the week – and then we could talk. I don’t think I’d want Mom to know. Or Aunt Mary. I wouldn’t want them to think – I’ll tell Mom I’m going to a girlfriend’s. To study. Mom doesn’t get home until six, so you can call me after school and tell me where to meet you… But only in public. You’ve got to let me draw the line. And once it’s drawn, you mustn’t cross it.

Good luck with that.

Andrea Gollhardt and John Profeta

Andrea Gollhardt (Li’l Bit) is another talented and successful Niagara University BFA with extensive experience at the Irish Classical Theatre Company, and she is up to the task of portraying this complicated young woman. Kudos as well to John Profeta for taking on this tough role of Uncle Peck and bringing the same level of believability to his role as Ms. Gollhardt does to hers. And let’s not forget director Kelly Beuth who was able to create that unacceptable reality.

As to the “Greek chorus” it’s my understanding that the original play called for only three utility actors; here we get five and they distract, I think, from the central action. Speaking of distractions, I found that the projections of titles from an outdated “how to drive” manual complete with awful (on purpose by Jane Cudmore) dead-pan narration reminiscent of school film strips (remember those?) offered some much-needed comic relief. And a special kudo to Founder & Artistic Director Kurt Schneiderman for the best, most complete, most informative “playbills” I’ve seen at Subversive in a while.

What can I say? HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE is a Pulitzer Prize winning play by a major American woman writer on a topic that couldn’t be more timely in 2018 and it was truly an “all hands on deck” effort with at least 15 behind the scenes participants, all members of the Subversive Theatre Collective, which is devoted exclusively to radical political theater.

Up next: THE NANCE (March 1-24, 2018) about a gay burlesque performer in the 1930s (the 2013 Broadway premier starred Nathan Lane). And mark your calendars for the annual Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts play at Subversive directed by Kelly Beuth. This year (June 21-July 7, 2018) it’s SLUT about body shaming in high schools.

Lead image: Theresa DiMuro Wilber, Brittany Shannon, Andrea Gollhardt, John Profeta and Justin Fiordaliso

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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