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Tucson Weekly Sex and Power

Two Current Plays Tackle The Complex Interplay Of These Factors In Our Lives

By Dave Irwin

MARCH 15, 1999:  TUCSON IS CURRENTLY blessed with productions from two contemporary Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights. Both works focus on sex and power within complex and ambiguous contexts, but from vastly different perspectives. The results in both cases are excellent, if disturbing, theatre.

Arizona Theatre Company's How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel, tells the story of a grown-up Lolita, looking back on her sexual abuse by a trusted uncle. Li'l Bit (Kate Goehring), through a series of flashbacks, tells how Uncle Peck (James Carpenter) taught her to drive while also molesting her. But the monstrosity of his acts are undercut by the counterpoint of his tenderness, vulnerability and perhaps even her own complicity.

Damesrocket Theatre Company's version of David Mamet's Oleanna, inspired by the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, follows an innocent encounter between John (Joseph McGrath), a self-absorbed male professor, and a confused female student, Carol (Altea Garcia). Mamet uses the situation to delineate the tragedy of the pedantic but not pedophilic prof, and also explores issues of truth, communication, political correctness and post-modern feminism.

Vogel has the more interesting work in this instance. As she often does, she infuses her drama with comedy that disarms the audience's defenses without demeaning the seriousness of the subject. With three additional actors as a modern Greek chorus playing multiple roles (Linda Libby, Christine Williams and Bob Sorenson), we weave in and out of Li'l Bit's life through flashbacks, clearly announced with references to driving instructions. Vogel provides a superbly structured story arc. We learn the fate of Uncle Peck and the end of their incestuous relationship in the middle of the play, while continuing to build emotionally to a final flashback of the initial molestation, and ending with a healing coda of Li'l Bit as a reconciled adult. That Vogel deliberately evokes laughter in the midst of this carnage, offhandedly noting that the family nicknames are based on their genitalia or offering the hilarious white-trash advice on alcohol use that Li'l Bit receives from her mother, makes the devastation all the more poignant.

Carpenter's performance as Uncle Peck is the ultimate element in the success of director David Ira Goldstein's production. Carpenter endows Peck with strength, gentle empathy and a semblance of innocence as he struggles with his own demons. Later, his pathetic dissolution to his obsession is equally convincing. Liking him despite his atrocities, in fact wondering if an uncle so caring and wonderful might be worth the evil, we better understand the symbiotic relationship between the two. Carpenter's consistent portrayal is chilling in its seductiveness and terrifying in its implications.

Kate Goehring's performance is winning enough, and suffers only in light of Carpenter's flawless achievement. She has the more difficult role, with numerous age and attitude changes from 11 to thirtysomething, from coquettish to creeped out. She effectively plays a character whose teenage sexuality and emotions vacillate wildly as she examines her own responsibility for her dark past. Goehring's underlying sense of innocence throughout the buffeting by primal forces a child could never hope to understand, much less conquer, accentuates the human cost of abuse.

MAMET'S OLEANNA takes a more serious, linear approach. Here we first see the initial encounter, then its aftermath. The audience, aware of the facts, watches as allegations of harassment become twisted into immutable facts by unseen parties who never actually witnessed the events. Act I ends ambiguously. By the end of Act II, as words fail him, the professor turns physical, clearly a fatal flaw, with surprising results in Act III. As we watch the deconstruction of truth and the transference of power, Carol raises the ante beyond the professor's tolerance, leading to the final confrontation which dooms him completely. In this she personifies the power struggle as her body is physically abused when words fail.

Aleta Garcia as Carol handles her character well--confused, initially vexed by low self-esteem, then increasingly empowered, eventually going over the top with her newfound sense of control. Her transformation is keyed to "her group" as she surrenders her own weak identity to the strength of groupthink. Mamet's writing is at fault here, since we never see that leap and only view the catastrophic results. Nonetheless, Garcia is persuasive in her transition.

Joseph McGrath also gives a convincing performance as the eager, smug professor. One easily imagines John inhabiting an outer ring of hell where the punishment is eternity at a cocktail party with this self-righteous bore. McGrath conveys the character's wide-eyed desire to be liked, as well as his frustration and terror at a world spinning increasingly beyond his control.

A problem with the production by Damesrocket Artistic Director Caroline Reed is the technical handling of Mamet's dialog. Mamet's technique (illustrated so well in the film version of his play, American Buffalo) requires the actors step on each other's lines to illustrate that no communication is taking place, that neither is hearing the other, rather than the polite cue-response pattern of normal dialog. Here the elliptical lines end mid-sentence and hang there for a moment, rather than overlapping. This gives a herky-jerky feeling, rather than the torrential sense that Mamet requires.

The timeliness and relevance of both these works is self-evident. ATC even includes a listing of resources for victims of abuse. Between the two, How I Learned to Drive has a slight edge as a more engaging work. But both are interesting, thought-provoking personifications of the complex interaction between sex and power in contemporary society.

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