Steering audiences into daring but dark theatre
By Ross Larkin
Melbourne’s Mockingbird Theatre are fast building a reputation for tackling challenging, confronting and somewhat heavy-handed works – a risk for even the most iconic and established theatre companies to consider.
It would be reasonable to question whether such a choice were wise in a relatively young collaborative.
Incest, mental illness, homophobia, sex and violence have been the hot subject matters of late for Mockingbird; the mere suggestion of which would drive the less brave to contemplate a Wizard of Oz remake.
An astonishing relief, therefore, to not only feel comfortable Mockingbird can pull it off, but to know they can, and have, knocked it out of the park.
How I Learned to Drive, by American playwright Paula Vogel, is arguably the closest to the bone Mockingbird have ventured to conquer thus far. The 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning script, examines perhaps the heaviest and most controversial of issues imaginable. Pedophilia.
Not a subject many of us care to discuss, let alone be subjected to head on in theatrical format. However, herein lies the success of the play. It delicately and subtly unpacks the story of a teenage girl, affectionately referred to as Lil’Bit, growing up in Maryland, during which time, her uncle Peck teaches her to drive.
Some of the most poignant moments of the play evolve from the insinuating language, as Uncle Peck warns her of the dangerous drivers on the road, and how to defend herself as a driver. Truth be told, the real monster is right beside her in the vehicle, grooming and brain-washing, to later take advantage of her in various calculated ways.
While her Aunty insists Lil’Bit “knows exactly what she is doing”, and cries about wanting “her husband back”, How I Learned to Drive becomes Lil’Bit’s struggle to defend herself against, not only her predator, but the scorning, victim-bashing tongues of the time.
Sarah Reuben is exceptional as Lil’Bit, portraying innocence and fear with a believability that moves and disturbs, while the equally engaging and nuanced performance by Jason Cavanagh as Peck, will send tingles down your spine.
Meanwhile, viewers battle between hatred and pity over such an unhinged, yet somehow frail character as Peck, who is, apparently oblivious to the horror of preying on the teenage girl he claims to love.
A remarkable supporting cast, and the usual firm direction from Chris Baldock, makes How I Learned to Drive another proud notch in the Mockingbird belt, and one certainly not to be missed.