August 01, 2000

Secrets and Truths


How I Learned to Drive

by Paula Vogel

State Theatre South Australia


Secret Bridemaids’ Business

by Elizabeth Coleman

Playbox with State Theatre

Optima Playhouse

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

In How I learned to Drive, American  playwright  Paula Vogel uses humour as a vehicle, you might say. And with it she takes us down some pretty dodgy back roads. If anyone were to tell you that this is a play about the intimate relationship between a seventeen year old girl and her forty five year old uncle you might feel the need to contact Crimestoppers. It is certainly taboo territory  – and that usually means plenty of outrage and very little actual comprehension of the issues.

With this play, which earned a Pulitzer Prize and widespread recognition for its author, there is a real attempt to get closer to the complexities of  covert behaviour and its consequences. The setting is rural Maryland in the mid to late 1960s and, despite their jokily sexual names, Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck are presented as individualised characters. Paradoxically, they are both more reflective and more aware than the unreconstructed society around them.

Using what she calls the Male, Female and Teenage Greek Choruses, the playwright introduces a background of voices from members of the extended family. We are told that grandma was married at fourteen, chosen from a herd of sisters the way a lion takes a gazelle. Li’l Bit’s mother is both overprotective and fatalistic about the improprieties of her daughter’s association with her sister’s husband. The emotional landscape in which these events take place is itself a significant cause.

The line between the natural and the unnatural is constantly blurred in ways that  deprive us of the luxuries of straight-forward disapproval. Uncle Peck is not a fiend nor is Li’l Bit unaware of her role in the unfolding events. We are shown aspects of their intimacy which are enriching  and create a bond between them which contrasts positively with the society around them. But this serves only to complicate matters, of course, because Paula Vogel is unsparing in reminding that this is an abusive relationship which over seven years is profoundly damaging to the child and the man.

In her simply staged production in the Space, State Theatre’s artistic director Rosalba Clemente has captured much of the humanity of the text  despite  a tendency to coarsen some of the presentation to cartoon-like exaggeration. It is an awkwardness  jn Vogel’s text as well, I think,  particularly in the opening section of the play. The text is frequently self-conscious with puns and weak gags as if the impulse to maintain comedy when the situation is so problematic is not a meaning of the play but an unfortunate by-product.

For this reason the choruses – Rory Walker, Marlo Grocke and  Penny Maegraith often strain at their task and the caricature becomes shrill. The central relationship is well presented, though, with fine performances from Lisa Hensley as Li’l Bit and Nicholas Eadie as Uncle Peck. This is difficult material performed with courage and clarity and the effect of Vogel’s unravelling exposition is as disturbing as it is intriguing.

Dean Hill’s set is almost too diagrammatic – a wide screen like a drive-in movie features a flat plain escaping to vanishing point forms a backdrop, while  the chorus sits behind the two central players embellishing and commenting on the events. Along with the lugubrious quotations from the learner driver manual, musical director Christine Evans has followed Vogel’s suggestions for musical garnish with pop songs as evocative to the period as they are dubious in their preoccupation with the legal age of consent.

But while not all of Vogel’s text works and this presents problem of staginess for Rosalba Clemente,  the richly witty central motif of the driving lesson- occasion of the girl’s first abuse at the age of eleven,  but also metaphor of her power and capacity for self-determination – is complex and  inventive and, steered by  the accomplished performances of Lisa  Hensley and Nicholas Eadie,  provocative and instructive as well.

Secret Bridesmaids’ Business,  by Elizabeth Coleman, presently touring from Playbox, charts less controversial territory but is shrewdly observed comedy of manners all the same. The setting is a hotel suite the night before Meg’s wedding. Her mother is fussing over the table settings and pew ribbons  while bridesmaid Lucy, discovering the groom-to-be has been having a fling with a mutual friend, argues with fellow bridesmaid Angela about whether the bride should be Told All.

Coleman’s script is an astute mix of edgy situation comedy and soothing humour but one never quite cancels the other. Her subject is really about friendship and the Nineties-Noughties version of sisterhood. It examines the pressures of mothers on daughters, and encapsulates the mix of emancipation and conventionality in thirty- something women. The dialogue has a distinctly Australian earthiness, which the actors clearly relish and the situation is that blend of farce and psychological realism which Alan Ayckbourn has so successfully exploited.

Director Catherine Hill manages these levels adeptly and is well served with a strong cast. Jane Hall as Meg, has both the  perky assertiveness and emotional vulnerability of what we might call the Seachange heroine. It is nicely judged and the strain in the actor’s voice  inadvertantly provides additional authenticity. As Angela , Roz Hammond provides  suitably goofy mugging- and a bit more in her spotlight soliliquy-  while Kate Johnston’s Lucy is persuasively direct. Valerie Bader navigates around the obvious as the fussing mother of the bride, Nicole Nabout’s Naomi avoids the cliches as the Other Woman and Scott Irwin, as the feckless James, is well aware that the groom is almost completely marginal  to events  even when he has precipitated them.

With Shaun Gurtons’s suavely functional set and its scrumptious lighting this comedy unfolds with well calibrated  ease. And, rather like scripts such as Thank God He met Lizzie, Elizabeth Coleman has given us a distinctively Australian romantic comedy  which is as much satiric of marriage and fidelity as it is celebratory. The problems raised in the play are not magically solved and yet there is no sense of capitulation either. This is a worldly play about an apparently conventional subject and it reveals a writer with every bit as much flair as comic dramatists such as  Michael Frayn or Nora Ephron. The business of these bridesmaids may be kept secret but let us hope Elizabeth Coleman’s smartly observed play is not.

The Adelaide Review, No.203, August, 2000, p.26.

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