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Minutes into Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive," the main characters are alone together, in the midst of one of the most intimate, sexually-charged scenes of the play. They are sitting five feet apart, staring straight out into the audience.

This disconnect is a theme of the play, which is running at Production Workshop Feb. 11-14. The story of Lil Bit, a girl coming of age in 1960s and 1970s Maryland, and her more-than-familial relationship with her Uncle Peck, is really a story about star-crossed love and missed connections.

Madeleine Heil '13 plays Lil Bit, who ranges in age from 11 to about 40, though not in chronological order. From her first monologue, looking back on her adolescence as an adult, Heil seems like a woman using humor to cover deep emotional scars. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the play is that she hardly ever lets the facade slip — only once does she ever let loose her frustration.

But despite the character's constant restraint, Heil shows remarkable range. She ages visibly between scenes and makes clear her varying feelings for Uncle Peck — from devotion to camaraderie to disgust.

Lil Bit is a girl who has a lot to be frustrated about. Her family's normal dinner conversations center around the size of her chest and the boys at school ask her to dance with them to the fast songs "so they can watch (her) jiggle." Ninety percent of the conversations in the play are about sex, yet when Lil Bit finds someone with whom she feels comfortable, someone she seems to love, their relationship is unacceptable to the world.

"It's a love story," said Alex Keegan '12, the show's director. "That's really what's most frightening about it and also what's most beautiful about it." The relationship between Lil Bit and Uncle Peck is disturbing in part because it is so easy to understand how these two, both outcasts within their family, could want to be together.

That authenticity owes a lot to the easy chemistry between Heil and Will Ruehle '13, who plays Uncle Peck, as a man who grew up reluctantly — if ever. He is desperate to cling on to any vestiges of his youth.

Heil and Ruehle are backed by an outstanding supporting cast. Each of the actors in what Vogel calls the "Greek Chorus" accomplishes the difficult task of playing a number of small roles and making each one distinct, even memorable.

Though small, made up of only three female and two male parts, the Greek Chorus is bigger than Vogel intended — the original script called for only three members, Keegan said. The expanded cast allows each character to delve more deeply into individual roles.

Deepali Gupta '12 turns the part of Aunt Mary into a remarkably unlikeable but fascinating character. She also displays a beautiful singing voice.

"How I Learned to Drive" packs a lot into a short time. A story that jumps around a 30-year period clocks in at under two hours, a feat it achieves by having minimal set changes, no intermission and just one blackout in its entire run. The supporting cast also functions as run crew, setting up tables and chairs and occasionally comprising the scenery by making tableaux in the background.

This play is undoubtedly shocking. Its relationships are not meant to feel easy, and even the numerous funny scenes may leave you feeling uncomfortable or even queasy. Nor does it build up to the shockers — the second scene is one of the most graphic.

But if one can handle a brutally honest look at what simultaneously attracts and repels us, this play is not to be missed.

* * * * * *

(Five out of five stars)

With stand out performances from primary and supporting cast, this play guarantees an emotional response.



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