slice of life

‘How I Learned to Drive’ provides moving treatise on sexual assault

Courtesy of Mike Davis

The cast of "How I Learned to Drive" was small, consisting of two leads and three chorus members. Pictured from left to right: Remy Zaken, Karis Danish, Madeleine Lambert, Michael Brusasco, and Nick LaMedica.

UPDATED: April 10, 2017 at 9:10 p.m.

A slightly subdued audience turned their backs to the stage and left the theatre behind them. The stage stood near-empty, with a long road stretching up the center, the yellow center lines not quite matching up with the cracked pavement.

A simple set, with projection screens on either side of the sloped highway provided the back drop to the powerful opening night of “How I Learned to Drive.” The solemn play opened Friday at the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex.

The play is narrated by Li’l Bit in a series of flashback. The grown woman delves into memories of her childhood, a childhood where she was emotionally and sexually abused by her Uncle Peck.

Set in rural Maryland, Li’l Bit’s driving lessons from her Uncle Peck provide a metaphorical vehicle for her flashback. The audience journeys through her mind “idling in neutral gear,” accelerating into third and fourth gears and discovering reverse.

“I think it’s one of those pieces of work that might not be the money maker, it might not be the one that’s going to bring crowds or gain fame, but it’s important, it’s the stories that are being told,” said Kyra Button, a senior stage management major who worked on the show.

She was right – the audience was slightly thinner on the ground on Friday. After the show, some milled around in the lobby, discussing what they had seen, others left quickly.

“How I Learned to Drive” was co-produced with a theater in Cleveland where Button travelled to study the set and show.

The narrative of the play leaps back and forth, making it initially hard to follow. Eventually, the story begins to emerge, as the audience gets jolted from scene to scene, much the way Li’l Bit is jolted by her memories.

Only five people are in the cast: Li’l Bit, Uncle Peck and three chorus members that rotate between playing grandparents, Li’l Bit’s mother, a young boyfriend, Aunt Mary and a younger version of the lead role.

Comedic scenes puncture the otherwise serious play, one such moment is “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking.” Uncle Peck has taken his niece to dinner and buying her drinks. During the scene, the pair freeze while Li’l Bit’s mother speaks a monologue on the do’s and don’ts of alcohol.

“Don’t mix your drinks, like the man you came in with, stick with the one you start with.”

“Dunk your head, a wet woman is still less conspicuous than a drunk woman.”

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Courtesy of Joanna Penlava

Karis Danish, who played the mother, said the scene was one of the most challenging in the show for her. Comedy is more difficult than most genres, she said, especially when it is placed in the midst of such a heavy show.

Danish seamlessly switches between several characters, a skill she said come naturally after repeat rehearsals. However, one character sticks with her at the end of the day.

“Aunt Mary especially would really just live inside of me,” Danish said. “The more we do it, as an actor, you learn to open yourself in that intersection of the story and go about your day and not be a disaster.”

Remy Zaken, another chorus member, said the most difficult scene for her was the final one, where she appears as a young Li’l Bit. She said she is glad her back is turned toward the action, and the emotional scenes were handled well in rehearsals. The actors were often given breaks and formed a close bond with each other during the process.

“We make a lot of jokes that are totally inappropriate, that I think that if someone on the outside were to hear us say, they would think we are horrible people,” Danish said. “But it helps you step back and go ‘ok, this is fun too.’”

Casey Lessinger, a junior theater design and technology major, said the show was very hard to watch — some of her friends have experienced situations similar to the ones depicted. She said it hurt to imagine someone going through the things shown on stage.

Although the play was written 20 years ago, the issues highlighted are still prevalent. The performance was sponsored by the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center in Onondaga County. The organization had an informational table in the lobby, and provided statistics about child abuse.

For example, One in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Ninety percent of the time a child knows their abuser. One in five children is sexually solicited while online. Every six minutes a child is sexually abused.

Button said she thinks the play could help some people move on, turning their backs on memories, leaving past experiences in the rearview mirror.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, the attribution for the dominant photo and setting of the “How I Learned to Drive” were misstated. The photo is courtesy of  Mike Davis and the play is set in rural Maryland. The Daily Orange regrets these errors.

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