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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The season opener for Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is How I Learned to Drive. That’s a subject in which I am very interested, since I’m the only person I know who has never—since I got my driver’s license at 16—had an accident or gotten a traffic ticket.

However, no driving skill prepares you for this play by Paula Vogel. It won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1998, as well as Obies, Drama Desk Awards and an Outer Circle Award. Yes, the play is about learning to drive, and there are plenty of automotive references and sound effects … but, mostly it is about sexual abuse.

Back 20 years ago, things were different, yet eerily the same. Back then, we were reeling from the revelations about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Today, look at our list of exposed predators, from Cosby to Moonves to Weinstein.

Founding artistic director Ron Celona took the stage to greet the audience, and was completely honest: This play was not the company’s first choice for season opener, but the writer of the other play is being sued by nine women over sexual harassment. However, Celona and his board decided that this all is a topic that should be addressed, so they chose How I Learned to Drive, and were even able to slide the first play’s actors into the new play. How great is that? (The show runs almost an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, so advise your kidneys of this beforehand.)

This is not a play that you will “like.” You might be stunned, maybe horrified, perhaps confused. You will not leave the theater with a song in your heart and a skip in your step. It is set in the 1960s, in a very rural setting—think hillbillies, crackers, hicks (their words, not mine) from the South.

The open set is creatively jumbled with imprints of maps rolled across the walls and angled risers topped by tables and chairs of various sizes and shapes. In fact, the set holds a surprise that doesn’t come out until the final scenes, so kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for that special and unexpected touch.

The cast members get to play multiple roles, always an exciting challenge for actors and an opportunity to show off versatility. It takes a while for the story to come forward as we see Uncle Peck, shrewdly played by Dennis Gersten, patiently stalking his niece “Li’l Bit,” intricately portrayed by actress Angela Sauer. The “Greek Chorus” roles are played by Charles Pasternak, Debra Cardona and Jillian Taylor, who delight us when they get to strut their stuff in a variety of other parts. Director Joanne Gordon has mined both the stage set and her actors for maximum effect, and she handles the potential awkwardness with taste. The lighting changes are terrific, and the sound effects are both legion and greatly effective.

The results of sexual abuse are dealt with by showing how the victim’s feelings inevitably shut down. We watch what happens to this girl and how she deals with it. Yet we are faced with her role in the seduction, too—is she part of the problem? She brokers a deal with her uncle that changes both their lives. Playwright Vogel squarely faces the role of alcohol and alcoholism in these characters, as well as their “addiction transfer” from one obsession to another, believing that they are cured from their first fixation by rationalizing a change to the second. But in this play, those shut-down feelings somehow come back when one is driving.

Wow, what a revelation. There are a lot of people who “love” to drive and see it as a time for the hands to be busy while the mind roams free. America’s love affair with cars is briefly touched on, too. The ’60s through the ’90s gave us some gorgeous and unique designs in the automotive world. Cars were considered sex symbols back then, and the inevitable relationship between cars and people-sex is obvious, emotional and complicated, both in this play and in life.

How I Learned to Drive is a thought-provoking work, no matter how distasteful the topic. We need to get real about this ongoing problem lurking in our society at every level—and only by facing it will we understand it. Then, maybe, we might actually learn how to fix it. Is it possible?

How I Learned to Drive is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 18, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is no show Tuesday, Oct. 30.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory’s season-opener, The Chosen, begins the company’s selection of four plays that represent the diverse cultural heritage of America.

This play is bracketed by World War II in 1944 and the successful establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and it takes place in Brooklyn. Two boys meet playing baseball—how American is that? But don’t think Norman Rockwell just yet: One of the boys belongs to the strict and tradition-bound Hassidic segment of Judaism, and the other belongs other to a more progressive, modernistic and liberal sect. Instant conflict.

While the play’s main characters are Jewish, this play’s themes echo the lives of people worldwide. Almost every religion has different groups within it, each with its own rules about food, drink, travel, marriage, clothing, hair—everything. Maybe that deep sense of spiritual identification is why the audience at The Chosen was the most spellbound, silent bunch I’ve seen in a theater. There was not even a sniffle, and how are your sinuses doing with all the reseeding and the winds? Not a sound. Not a move.

It has to be gratifying for the actors to perform such a powerful play, because they get to see and feel how its message reaches all of us. The five, all-male actors in The Chosen are marvelous, dealing with a tiny stage—but a GREAT set!—and an unamplified room, demanding great diction and projection; they are rewarded with magnificent lighting and a lovely subtle color palette. CV Rep’s artistic and production staff gets stars for their work here. Kudos to Louise Ross, Jimmy Cuomo, Aalsa Lee, Eddie Cancel and Randy Hansen. Artistic director Ron Celona beautifully and cleverly directs the piece, with some brilliant uses of the flexible set that will make you smile with appreciation. (Just to make it perfect, an actual cantor, Samuel B. Radwine, is their consultant for this production.)

The universal themes are boiled down into the friendship of these two kids in wartime Brooklyn. At the game, Reuven, played by Drew Feldman, is pitching to Daniel, played by Daniel Seigerman. The show is narrated by the older version of Reuven, acted by Dave Natale. The fathers of the two boys round out the rest of the cast: The intellectual writer David Malter is Reuven’s widowed dad, played by Dennis Gersten, and David Light plays Daniel’s father, the brilliant and rigid Hasidic Rabbi (Reb) Saunders. Guess what happens?

This wordy play is adapted from the novel and film by its original author Chaim Potok, with Aaron Posner. The script throws around a lot of Yiddish expressions, some translated into English and some not, so the greater vocabulary you bring to this play, the more you’ll get out of it. The script also tosses into the mix a few stunning examples of Talmudic philosophical debate—and even a little humor. It’s all about learning, and we marvel at the devotion to their studies of these boys, back when school was simpler and more distraction-free.

Watching the actors move on this stage is only part of the fascination. We are frozen in anticipation, wondering what path awaits these two boys, their fathers and their countries.

The casting is, well, perfect. Drew Feldman is excellent as the Nice Jewish Boy we all know; despite being raised motherless, he lives to learn and loves life. His father, played by Dennis Gersten, is totally convincing as the passionate Zionist writer. The older Reuven, Dave Natale, devours the stage as he paces it, linking time, place and situation for us—and he gets to have some fun, briefly charming us by playing other parts. Daniel Seigerman excels in the hugely challenging role of a young Hasid facing a changing world while being locked into tradition—and, strangely, being raised in almost total silence by his father. David Light, as his dad … well, you can’t take your eyes off him, with his flashing eyes, growly voice and bearlike moves. Wait ’til he shows off his character’s brilliance and knowledge; he’ll give you goose bumps.

The only tiny little nitpick I could come up with is that I’d like to see more use of the hands. It’s not a stereotype to say that Jewish people (and Italians!) talk with gestures. We could use more of that here.

The best entertainment takes us to a place to which we could never go, and then makes us love the people we find there. This show does that. We keenly understand and accept each character, and the pin-drop silence of the audience proves that we all identify. This is, after all, part of American history, and we don’t need to have ever set foot in Brooklyn to become swallowed up by the story. This two-hour, two-act play will take you further down the rabbit hole than you’ve ever been, because it’s so real. I almost wish there hadn’t been an intermission; the break shocked us back to reality.

The title The Chosen reminds me of that old joke about the Jewish leader who one day gets to actually talk with God, and asks him, “Are we really the Chosen People?” God answers, “Yes.” The man reflects on the historical problems faced by the Jews—Cossack raids, the Holocaust, ancient Egyptian rulers, Biblical plagues—and timidly requests of God, “You think you could choose somebody else for a while?”

When you see this play at CV Rep, you’ll be glad they were chosen.

The Chosen, a production of Coachella Valley Repertory, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 16, at The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance