How I Learned to Drive 

Carmel Community Players

Directed by Brian G. Hartz

5 stars

Paula Vogel's 1998 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play about pedophilia mixes realistic drama with surrealistic comedy for a tension-filled portrait of abuse. A woman looks back on the strange but innocent way her family weaved sexual references into kitchen conversation, while seemingly unaware that her soft-spoken Uncle Peck was sexually abusing her. Scenes that bring the young girl (played by an adult) and the middle-aged man together are bone-chilling. Like the teen Li'l Bit, who has been manipulated by her uncle for years, we are both terrified and yet compelled to go on, fearing tragedy and, in a perverse way, anticipating it. Driving is Vogel's apt metaphor for sexual power: Just because Li'l Bit gets behind the wheel, doesn't mean that she's in control. Director Brian G. Hartz (formerly of Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre) extends the metaphor with too many video projections and voice-overs about the rules of the road, but still his production is well above average. As Peck, Dan Scharbrough is the most frightening kind of monster, so thoroughly kind and vulnerable that it's nearly impossible to see the evil. As his victim, Angela Steele walks the tightrope between girl and woman, fear and curiosity, without swinging widely. Three supporting actors are purposely garish, then strikingly poignant as Bit's relatives and classmates. Together, their stagecraft makes How I Learned to Drive an enjoyable, completely terrifying experience. Through June 13. 815-9387;

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