DUAL CRITICS REVIEW: ‘How I Learned to Drive’ at The 5 & Dime Theatre

The 5 & Dime, Jacksonville’s downtown theatre, has opened “How I Learned to Drive.” This 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama written by Paula Vogel opened on August 10 and remains on stage through August 26, 2018. The theatre is located at 112 East Adams Street; additional information is available on the company’s Facebook page. For reservations, call (904) 637-5100 or visit www.The5andDime.org.

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“Drive” is a memory play; a dark coming-of-age story with mature themes mixed with humor at times. It’s a familiar story: these days, the news is filled with reports of powerful figures (almost all male) having used their positions to sexually abuse subordinates. The play reconstructs the complex emotional and sexual relationship between  Lil’ Bit and her much older Uncle Peck, a relationship that began when she was just eleven years old and continued throughout her adolescence. Dramaturg’s Notes by Kaiti Barta are included in the program.

The play is not linear, as it jumps back and forth between periods of time. The play begins in 1969, with Lil’ Bit and Uncle Peck sitting in his automobile in a suburban Maryland parking lot.  She will be graduating from high school in the fall, and then be off to college; the first in her family to do so. Her uncle appears to be a likable guy, charming, and concerned about her welfare. During the course of the play, Peck does teach Lil’ Bit how to drive, and they discuss a number of topics, which includes breasts, dating, drinking, life, and sex. Peck also enjoys the company of boys, as we see when he takes a young cousin fishing. We’d like him much better if we could just find a way to discount his skilled calculated manipulative seduction of children.

Actress Katie Swider McCloskey is remarkable as Lil’ Bit, often sensitively present but curiously inattentive as if she were about to cry. McCloskey is a fine singer and director and a talented actress in both comic and dramatic roles. Her portrayal of Mae West in ABET’s production of “Dirty Blonde” was stunning.

A new resident of Jacksonville, Brian Niece,  has an extensive theatrical resume, with credits as an actor, director, writer, designer, and producer. He will be seen in ABET’s “James and The Giant Peach” when the theatre opens in September after relocating to their new Atlantic Beach venue. Niece portrays Uncle Peck convincingly, with a smooth Southern drawl, which helps conceal underlying menace.

Three additional actors (described as Greek Chorus members) are almost always on stage, in roles that include Lil’ Bit’s grandmother, mother, aunt, cousin, and teenage friends. This lively group added depth to the story and the characters were excellently brought to life by Chelsea Black, Danielle Dobies, and Daniel Weibusch.

Daniel Austin directed the show with the restraint needed to handle the challenging aspects of the material. He is well known on local stages as a talented performer and director, and will be joining The Bolles School as a drama teacher this Fall.

The Scenic Design by Production Manager Lee Hamby and Daniel Austin was simple but effective. Two chairs and two projection lamps were positioned center-stage as stand-ins for Uncle Peck’s automobile, with a large table on the right for Lil’ Bit ‘s family gatherings.

The background, by Scenic Artists Jennifer Peek and Frank Sanabria II, was filled with subdued illusory abstractions, suggesting memories and dreams without being intrusive.

The show uses quite a bit of music, with songs from the sixties and seventies.  Bradley Akers was the Sound Designer, Abby Gomez was the Stage Manager.

While this play debuted over twenty years ago, it remains relevant. The 5 & Dime’s production is a unique theatre experience you don’t want to miss.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.