Paula Vogel's "How I Learned To Drive" is set in a time when, as one character puts it, people knew about troubles, but didn't talk about them.
Vogel, however, does talk about them in this daringly disturbing yet entertaining 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is receiving its Maryland premiere at Center Stage.
The chief "trouble" she talks about is pedophilia, and she talks about it with high theatrical style -- eloquently, metaphorically and with an unusual degree of sympathy for both parties involved.
In fact, the one flaw in director Barry Edelstein's production is that he tends to be too overt, upsetting the delicate balance Vogel has established and painting the play's loaded central issue in black and white, instead of relying on the more unsettling gray palette the playwright has chosen.
As the title indicates, driving lessons are the play's chief metaphor. Using driving tips such as "Safety first" and "You and the reverse gear" to introduce the scenes, the story takes the form of a memory play, recounted by a grown woman nicknamed Li'l Bit, who is remembering her relationship with her uncle-by-marriage in 1960s suburban Maryland.
With a few detours, the play essentially moves backward in time, concluding with the event -- Uncle Peck allowing 11-year-old Li'l Bit to take the wheel of his car -- that precipitated their inappropriate relationship.
Before this, we see such scenes as: Young, over-developed Li'l Bit being teased at school, or sitting at the kitchen table with her "cracker" family, whose members are so obsessed with sex, they give each other sexual nicknames. And, of course, we see Uncle Peck actually teaching Li'l Bit to drive.
It's not too difficult to see what might draw Li'l Bit to Uncle Peck, who is not only more educated and worldly than her blood relatives, but seems genuinely interested in what she thinks and feels. In her moving portrayal, Melissa Leo -- best-known from her role as Sgt. Kay Howard on "Homicide" -- conveys this bond with a sense of palpable unease. Although that unease increases with age, it surfaces even in early adolescence, when confusion taints the girlish enthusiasm Li'l Bit feels for her uncle.
Dennis Parlato's portrayal of Uncle Peck is more of a problem -- one probably due as much to casting and direction as acting. With his thick Southern drawl and greased-back hair, he comes across more as a used-car salesman on the make than a sophisticated, debonair gentleman. He's far too oily to earn the audience's understanding, which can render Vogel's subtly crafted play so eerily effective.
All the other characters are played by a Greek chorus of three (Caitlin O'Connell, Brian Keane and Mary Bacon ), who contribute much of the play's welcome humor. Keane, for example, is responsible for the evening's funniest moments, which come in a sock-hop scene when he portrays a teen-ager so short, his eyes are level with Li'l Bit's well-endowed chest.
The chorus can also be serious, however, and O'Connell is sadly touching when she delivers the monologue in which Peck's concerned but misguided wife speaks those crucial lines: "I know he has troubles. And we don't talk about them."
The depiction of Peck isn't the only way this production veers toward overstatement. Unlike the off-Broadway production, Center Stage uses slides during a scene in which Peck photographs 13-year-old Li'l Bit. But even though these slides are recommended in the stage directions, seeing pictures of Vargas-style pin-ups and naked little girls turns a creepy, jTC compromising scene into one that is simply too heavy-handed.
More critically, in Li'l Bit's last memory sequence, as an 11-year-old, the action is, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, capable of being so misconstrued, it is at odds with much of what happens earlier.
Even so, "Drive" is a boldly singular work and one that Center Stage is fortunate to have snared.
In her final scene, when the adult Li'l Bit is talking about getting her car ready for a long drive, she says (quoting Peck), "You've got to treat her with respect." The surprising gift Vogel has given her two main characters is that, instead of labeling them good and evil, or victim and criminal, she treats them both with respect.
Center Stage's production may over-simplify at times, but Vogel's writing is so strong that, in the end, its power will haunt you, just as Li'l Bit's memories haunt her.
'How I Learned To Drive'
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. matinees most Saturdays and Sundays; 1 p.m. May 27; through June 7
Pub Date: 5/15/98