The Breaks 

How I Learned To Drive mines comedy from tragedy.

"I love the smell of your hair," says Uncle Peck to Li'l Bit, his niece (by marriage), in the opening moments of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning black comedy How I Learned To Drive.

It's a simple statement of fact, but in Rhodes College's current mounting of Vogel's disturbing and difficult show, community actor Greg Krosnes lecherously imbues the straightforward comment with perverse meaning and laces it with a hint of menace. He not only tells audiences everything they will soon discover about Peck but also how they should feel about it. He might as well have said, "I want to lick your [name the naughty part]."

With that first line, Krosnes can make you feel dirty all over. And not merely dirty but squirmy, anus-clinching, "get me into a shower right now" dirty. It's both a fine testament to his gifts as a performer and a problem from which Vogel's sophisticated, nonjudgmental play almost never fully recovers. Although Peck is unquestionably a pedophile with bad intentions who started molesting his niece when she was only 11, he is — following the model of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert — a molester the audience is allowed to like and with whom they are encouraged to sympathize. To achieve its maximum effectiveness, viewers must be seduced into a kind of complicity with Peck, a tortured WWII vet and recovering alcoholic, whose pure and tragic adoration of his niece mitigates the horror of his transgressions.

How I Learned To Drive is modeled after the dark political comedies of Aristophanes, complete with a Greek chorus. It borrows openly from Lolita. But more than anything else, it is a lyrical, overtly poetic memory play that owes much to the rough-hewn Americana of Sam Shepard and even more to Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.

After all, it's Li'l Bit the adult who checks her side and rearview mirrors before taking the audience on a guided tour of her troubled youth. It's particularly comforting for the audience knowing that there is a witty and reasonably well-adjusted adult sitting in for the little girl whose driving lessons graphically turn into something far less innocent. In this role, junior psychology major Shannon King is often excellent, even if she occasionally (and understandably) has a bit of trouble humanizing Vogel's more overtly lyrical passages.

Li'l Bit's history is complicated. She was raised in rural Maryland — "before the malls came" — by a single mother and grandparents who couldn't understand why a girl with such big boobies would ever want, let alone need, a college education. Big Papa (an East Coast descendant of Williams' perverse Big Daddy) is explicit in his declaration that the most important work she'll ever do will be accomplished on her back and in the dark. Peck — whose own problems make him particularly sympathetic to the idea of being an outsider inside this closely knit family — understands that his niece is special and gives her the encouragement and self-confidence she can't find elsewhere.

Though far too young for the role, Andrew Whaley is appropriately gaseous as Big Papa, but many of the play's best moments belong to Katie Preston, who fills a variety of adult and teenage roles. Her "Mother's Guide to Drinking" is, by turns, hysterical, heartbreaking, and reasonably useful.

How I Learned To Drive is far from condoning child sexual abuse, but neither is it a finger-wagging movie-of-the-week. It's a necessary and refreshing corrective reminding us, uncomfortably at times, that even our most strongly held moral convictions are riddled with nuance and ambiguity. While Krosnes' naked lechery hinders this from time to time, his gentleness makes amends. And Vogel's script is strong enough to survive the storm, mostly intact.

Director Wes Meador, who captured all the eerie moods and textures in his 2006 staging of Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird, has not fared quite as well this go-round. His use of music and projection seems random, and his racy, Vargas-esque slides of a mature-looking King are more tasteful than exploitative. Still, it's thought-provoking work thoughtfully staged.

Through February 24th at Rhodes College's McCoy Theatre

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