CVIndependent

Wed06192019

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

If you’re not a Muslim, imagine being a Muslim living in America today.

Would you be brave enough to wear traditional garb? Would you discuss your heritage openly? Or would fear cause you to change your name and hide who you are? These are some of the questions CV Rep’s fantastic production Disgraced addresses.

Though Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in 2012, it could not possibly be any more timely than it is now. The fear, anger and bigotry our current political climate has stirred up make this play with a Muslim protagonist painfully relevant.

The tight, 80-minute production centers around Pakistani-American lawyer Amir Kapoor (Arash Mokhtar), and his American-born artist wife, Emily (Elizabeth Saydah). Amir has abandoned his Muslim upbringing: He has changed his name from Abdullah and calls himself an apostate. He passes himself off as Indian in order to get ahead in the world of corporate mergers.

Emily, meanwhile, is drawn to the exotic nature of Islamic art, and embraces Islam far more than her husband does. As the play opens, Emily is completing a portrait of her husband. She hopes the piece will be reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, a Moorish slave. The comparison, she explains, came to her after a waiter was rude to Amir at a restaurant. Emily laments the man’s inability to see her husband for who he really is, while Amir himself shrugs off the incident as just part of the racism he deals with every day.

Soon, Amir’s nephew (Kamran Abbassian) arrives. He has also turned his back on his heritage, having changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen. Abe is seeking Amir’s help in defending a local imam who is facing charges of terrorist activity. Amir is not keen on the idea, fearing professional reprisals for getting involved in the case. When Abe tries to guilt his uncle into helping the fellow Muslim, Amir insists that he no longer practices the religion. But eventually, Amir relents and meets with the imam, though his firm is not officially defending the man. The meeting is mentioned in a newspaper article, which Amir worries could damage his professional future.

Soon, Emily gets a visit from Isaac (Joel Polis), a Jewish art gallery owner who is married to one of Amir’s colleagues, an African-American woman named Jory (Maya Lynne Robinson). He is impressed with Emily’s work, and is considering putting some of her pieces in an upcoming show.

Things come to a head three months later, during a dinner party at the Kapoor home, attended by Jory and Isaac. Amir is in a foul mood. His involvement in the Imam case has caused his law partners to question his heritage, and they are now accusing him of misrepresenting himself. The dinner conversation soon gets heated, as Amir ponders his Muslim heritage.

This production succeeds on every level. The cast is superb. I agree with an audience member who, during the post-show Q&A, called it one of the best examples of an ensemble cast he’d ever seen. However, each actor also stands out.

Mokhtar’s Amir is flawless. (Frustrated at the inability to find the right person after seeing 20 different actors, director Joanne Gordon finally struck gold and cast him via Skype.) Mokhtar’s striking good looks and charm initially hide the animosity and conflict boiling just beneath the surface. We feel for him as he struggles with questions of loyalty and cultural identity, as well as the possibilities of losing both his wife and his career.

Saydah, as Emily, is both stunning and a dynamite actress. The strong chemistry she has with Mokhtar makes us root for them as a couple. We want to see her achieve her dreams of stardom in the art world, and to live happily ever after with Amir.

Polis’ Isaac hits all the right notes as a typical New York art dealer. His intense, climactic scene with Amir hits the audience in the gut, as it should.

Abbassian holds his own as the young, earnest Abe.

Perhaps my favorite member of the cast is Maya Lynne Robinson as Jory. A strong, charismatic dramatic actress, she also provides most of the evening’s comic relief. When Isaac turns to her during a heavy political discussion and says “Honey, it’s racial profiling,” she snaps back: “I know what it is!”

I applaud artistic director Ron Celona’s choice to hold a Q&A immediately after every performance. It allows the audience to share some of the intense emotions the play stirs up, and to get to know the players a bit. Perhaps the most enlightening moment during the opening-night Q&A was the revelation that director Joanne Gordon grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. She vividly recalls that in those days, it was literally against the law for a white person to touch a black person. Perhaps that’s why she handles this play with such skill.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is exquisite, while the lighting and sound are also spot-on.

Disgraced brings up important questions. Who are we, really? Is cultural bias in our DNA? The time to find these answers is now.

Disgraced is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 2, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, March 14. Tickets are $48, and the running time is 80 minutes, with no intermission, followed by a Q&A. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance