Weird left turn

How I Learned to Drive

Stephanie Gularte and Loren Taylor in <i>How I Learned to Drive</i>: It’s easier to see if you sit on my lap.

Stephanie Gularte and Loren Taylor in How I Learned to Drive: It’s easier to see if you sit on my lap.

Rated 5.0

“Intense,” “disturbing” and “wickedly funny” are three obvious ways to describe How I Learned to Drive, a joint effort between River Stage and Beyond the Proscenium Productions currently playing at the Cosumnes River College campus in South Sacramento.

“Overdue” is another. It’s high time that somebody in Sacramento staged this difficult but inspired script, which garnered author Paula Vogel a well-deserved Pulitzer for Drama in 1998. But for whatever reasons, the city’s larger and better-established companies chose to let some other group take up the challenge.

It undoubtedly had something to do with the play’s subject matter. How I Learned to Drive is an autobiographical, coming-of-age comedy that goes four-wheeling into very dark territory. The show features several of the funniest scenes you’ll see this summer on a local stage, but the central subject is the sexually exploitive relationship between a 50-year-old man and his cute teenage niece. Other factors include alcoholism and dysfunctional family dynamics.

Box-office wisdom says that summer audiences don’t like dark subjects. So how come How I Learned to Drive has been playing to packed audiences?

It’s happened before. Nobody in Sacramento seemed ready to take on Tony Kushner’s sprawling Angels in America, Part One (Pulitzer, 1993) until Ann Tracy’s plucky Beyond the Proscenium Productions went for broke with an end-of-summer production three years ago. (The risk paid off handsomely.)

River Stage has likewise taken chances, including this year’s enormous (and wonderful) ’60s-style production of Chicago Conspiracy Trial. It’s a measure of River Stage director Frank Condon’s skill that he was able to change gears from the almost exclusively male, overtly political universe of that play to the family-dominated, female-viewpoint world of How I Learned to Drive—and still come up with an outstanding show.

How I Learned to Drive features a breakthrough performance by busy local actress Stephanie Gularte, who’s young and skinny enough to be credible as a teenager, but holds enough life experience to be convincing as a 35-year-old as well. Loren Taylor is the creepy uncle, taking a part that could easily be purely villainous and giving the role complexity and depth. Bonnie Foxworth contributes some highly capable and very funny scenes in middle-aged female roles.

It’s the best show in Sacramento this summer, and one you’re likely to remember for a good long time.