Paula Vogel’s 1997 “How I Learned to Drive” is on the shortlist of masterworks about sexual abuse, and in the #MeToo era, it’s a live grenade onstage. The pin is pulled and the audience barely breathes during the respectful, unsettling production that director Amber Paige McGinnis has fashioned at the Round House Theatre.
McGinnis treads carefully; she seems hyper-aware that Vogel’s story is harder than ever to watch as a woman nicknamed Li’l Bit ushers us through the sordid history she has survived with her predatory Uncle Peck. McGinnis creates a big show with the scale of Greek drama — it looks like it’s on the steps of a temple — coolly played with tragic inevitability. The formality gives us the distance we need to digest this horror.
At the same time, McGinnis continues to emerge — and perhaps now she has fully arrived — as a director with a sensitive ear and a stylish eye. The video and still pictures projected against the vast back wall are arresting, especially during a photo shoot with Peck getting Li’l Bit to model as he works his new camera (it’s the 1960s in this play). And if the three-person chorus demands broad playing as Vogel lampoons the ancient rut of gender stereotypes, especially around a kitchen table as Li’l Bit’s grandfather makes crude jokes about her adolescent body, the acting is mainly frank and low-key.
Vogel guides you step by excruciating step through the relationship, creating a how it happened reflection by sardonically mimicking the tutorials of driving manuals. “You and the reverse gear,” one of the actors will announce as the story rewinds to find Li’l Bit at ages 17, 15 and younger. Vogel’s writing waxes poetic with a black undercurrent as a narrator extols the erotic quality of the mid-20th-century American automobile, and it’s entirely recognizable in awkward high school scenes at the dance or in the shower after gym class.
The barefoot-in-peasant-garb look for the chorus is a distraction, an off-key element that works too hard. There are times when the formality seems too stiff: designer Paige Hathaway’s white-floored set emphasizes the size of the Round House stage by keeping it largely empty, and lighting designer Colin K. Bills supplies a wide rectangular light bar at eye level behind the actors that mainly glows clinically white. Especially early in this 100-minute production, the effect is dry, and the performance is just this side of arid.
Again, who can blame McGinnis for wanting to take advantage of the distance that Vogel’s script allows? “Have I forced you to do anything?” Peck asks Li’l Bit at one point, and the pause is harrowing. “I guess not,” comes the reply, and indeed, the way the silky, seemingly gentle, troubled Uncle Peck has shepherded the illusion of consent has been anatomized. The aura is intellectual, not emotional. This is a dissection, not a catharsis.
Of course, it’s moving, too, and there may be any number of places where your heart leaps into your throat. Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is Li’l Bit, a grown-up as she looks us in the eye and begins looking back, and compellingly young in the scenes where Li’l Bit is taught to be nervous about her body. As Li’l Bit tells her story, each scene is an instructional display as well as an experience that may be tough to revisit. Keegan keeps that in the foreground, and her measured approach is a key to the show’s cautious yet unflinching tone. Sometimes the grown Li’l Bit needs to pause and steel herself before reenacting a bad patch.
Peter O’Connor is a Peck by the book, following the descriptions we hear of him: easygoing, appealing, talking with a touch of Southern drawl. The demeanor is deceptively passive as Peck coaxes his niece toward the driver’s seat of his car and teaches her to take the wheel. Even O’Connor’s walk is an unhurried saunter; you barely notice the character’s urgency, which is what makes it so frightening.
Emily Townley nails an eye-opening monologue as Peck’s wife, among other roles, while Craig Wallace and Daven Ralston likewise filter in and out of supporting parts. McGinnis guides the cast to a tone that effectively toggles between intimate and epic — the shrewd projections by Jared Mezzocchi amplify the performance without diminishing the actors — and it seems right that “Drive” is on a stage that feels like a timeless public square. McGinnis navigates this uneasy ride with taste, and with eyes wide open.
How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel. Directed by Amber Paige McGinnis. Costumes, Ivania Stack; sound design, Amy Altadonna. About 100 minutes. Through Nov. 4 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. $50-$67. 240-644-1100 or roundhousetheatre.org