Reviewed by Katherine Karlson

The staging of a play about a disturbing topic — the ongoing sexual abuse of a child — requires not only a well-crafted script, but sensitive and honest portrayals by the actors. KNOW Theatre’s season finale, How I Learned to Drive, delivers this and more.

Samantha Rose directs Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play on a minimalist set that uses projected images as powerful backdrops for a highly talented cast of five actors.  Rose’s direction allows the actors to create poignant and powerful scenes throughout the difficult course of the play, which works backwards in time to show the start of this abuse.

Anna Simek, a KNOW regular, is no stranger to the role of a sexually exploited woman or girl. She delivered an excellent performance as Dottie in Killer Joe several seasons ago. In this play, however, her character, Li’l Bit, undergoes an arc of manipulative sexual grooming that starts in childhood.  Simek’s talent can create a prepubescent child who thinks she can control her abuser’s drinking with a promise of a weekly tête-à-tête, as well as the contemporary 34-year-old survivor, whose physical release from mental anguish is to get in her car “and then I floor it.”

Joe Hoffmann is Uncle Peck, the seemingly kind and attentive male relative who weaves a manipulative and sordid web around  Li’l Bit for nearly seven years.  He is complex: deceitful and devoted to his wife, Mary; a mentor on the fine art of pompano fishing, but whose inner selfishness and perversity is revealed in statements such as “I can’t think about the pain a fish feels,” “I am patient and don’t mind waiting” and “I can keep secrets.” Hoffmann shows us just enough of a damaged psyche to see the “why” behind his obsession with Li’l Bit but makes no play for our pity.

Three other actors create a panoply of secondary characters as individual Greek chorus members. Whether it’s the ignorant cracker grandfather or the high school boy on a bus whom the adult Li’l Bit seduces, Vito Longo wears many hats well. Lori Gordon Wilmot is particularly funny as Li’l Bit’s mother with her mid-century-modern advice on sex and drinking, who still understands that ignorance is not bliss for a young girl. Kirsten Whistle is a gifted newcomer to KNOW’s main stage. She handles the roles of the hyper-religious grandmother and a mean girl in the gym locker room equally well.  The three actors support the two leads on their journey with skill and subtle humor in several cases.

The intense focus of the play shows how the typical trials and tribulations of growing up — the development of breasts at puberty, the desire to grow intellectually, the need to escape a dysfunctional family — all contribute to the course of Li’l Bit’s descent into a dark place that she never really leaves, even after her confrontation with Uncle Peck on her 18th birthday. The first driving lesson, where the abuse begins on an 11-year-old girl, is all the more powerful when we see its many consequences years and decades later.

How I Learned to Drive allows a supremely able cast to deliver a difficult but important story. To quote another drama: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

IF YOU GO: KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton, is presenting How I Learned to Drive weekends through June 26. Performances will be 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 ($20 for seniors, $15 for students); purchase at The play, which opened June 10, runs about 1.75 hours without intermission.
KNOW follows federal, state and local health and safety guidelines using the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Level report, updated weekly, as a guide. If Broome County is listed as being a “low” or “moderate” risk area, masks are recommended, but not required. If the county is listed as a “high” risk area, masks are required at all times during performances.