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Cleveland Play House’s ‘How I Learned To Drive’ shows the effect of a wrong turn

A road begins at stage level and climbs back and up to the rear wall like a grey asphalt ski slope. Sitting halfway up on that road is a young woman, Li’l Bit (Madleine Lambert), who begins her narrative about growing up in 60s Maryland with incest and pedophilia.

Li’l Bit is the product of the poster family for dysfunctional. All members of the clan have nicknames that refer to their genitalia or breasts. There is her alcoholic mother “Titless Wonder,” “cousin BB” (Blue Balls), Grandpa “Big Papa,” Grandma (who is constantly trying to fend off Big Papa) and “Uncle Peck” (Michael Brusasco) who is married to Aunt Mary (Li’l bit’s blood relative).

At a young age, the Li’l Bit is constantly privy to crass adult conversations about various family sexual exploits and peccadilloes, because as her mother says “I’d rather she learn it at home than on the street.” At age 11 Lil bit is allowed to go on drives with Uncle Peck with the blessing of her mother and aunt.

At first, these trips serve as driving lessons and talks. As the girl begins to mature and reach puberty she develops ample breasts (noticed by family members and junior high school mates alike) and Uncle Peck begins his slow campaign of sexual conquest on the young girl telling her “that he’d never do anything she didn’t want him to do” thus making Lil Bit think that she is in control. It is also hinted that the alcoholic Uncle Peck molests BB at a young age.

It is only when Li’l Bit goes off to college that she is able to break free of the constant attentions of her uncle that include photo sessions and parking in remote areas so that he can paw her (all known and condoned by her aunt and mother). It is only when she is driving the car that she is safe from these attacks although at times she craves the attention that the man gives to her.

Flanking the road designed by Collette Pollard are two large screens that introduce various outdoor scenes designed by Caite Hevner as well as titles from a school safe driving film from the 60s with an authoritative voice announcing “Safety First – You and Driving Education,” “Driving in first gear,” “Driving in second gear” and “You and the Reverse Gear,” (that announces flashbacks) among others. Little use of props is employed. There are no dinner utensils, no car and no fishing gear thus allowing the audience to realize the dream like quality of the young girl’s memories. The lighting by Mary Louise Geiger sets the proper mood for each scene. The entire show is brought together through the work of director Laura Kepley.

The cast consists of Madeleine Lambert who gives a convincing performance as Lil Bit, a girl who because of her environment simply does not know better until she is able to get out on her own but whose own later behavior in life (seducing younger men and heavy drinking) begins to mimic that of her family. Michael Brusasco as the delusional Uncle Peck does not see his actions as wrong thus works with impunity to seduce the young girl. The rest of the cast of family and schoolmates are expertly played by Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken who switch with ease from part to part making a believable character backdrop for the play.

This is an adult play and while no overt sexual action takes place it is none the less very disturbing to those sensitive to such themes. Leave the kids at home.

This winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama takes a hard look at a near epidemic world problem using drama rather than visual simulation to tell a realistic story of unchecked lust. The courageous theater goers who witness this 80 minute one act play may have to deal with their emotions afterward but regardless they will end up more informed than before. Disturbing, touching, realistic and heartfelt all at the same time and a challenge for the senses.

“How I Learned to Drive” runs through March 26, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.  

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