On the moral landscape, there's a big chasm between a woman driven to prostitution and a young girl sexually abused by a relative. One demands implied consent regardless of the circumstance; the other is a crime regardless of circumstance. Two plays running in San Diego suggest an interesting, if unsettling, similarity: the same sexual weaponry used by a woman to lure a partner also lures predators. More unsettling, both plays suggest that deep inside every victim, you'll find traces of a perpetrator.
In Sweet Charity, a cornball '60s musical receiving a gritty production at the Sledgehammer Theater, the victim/perp is the eponymous Charity, a dancehall hostess with a heart of gold who is trying to find love in the maggot-infested Big Apple. In How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama receiving its Southern California premiere at San Diego Repertory Theatre, the victim/perp is Li'l Bit, the nickname of a grown woman looking back on a seven-year affair with her uncle. The catch? The "affair" began when Li'l Bit was 11.
For a play with perhaps the darkest possible subject at its center, How I Learned to Drive is a beautiful piece of writing. It's lyrical, poetic and artistically innovative-everything its subject is not. Or so we might think: while most of the discussion about the central relationship focuses on its incestuous or abusive aspects, this Sam Woodhouse-directed production, while not perfect, illuminates something I didn't catch the first time I saw it in New York: this is also a love story, a romance between a young girl and the only member of her family who doesn't insult her.
Jennifer Parsons stars as Li'l Bit, a fortysomething woman narrating the play. Li'l Bit comes from cracker country: rural Maryland before the countryside was taken over by malls. Her family-a white-trash blend of perverts, drunks and idiots-delights in taunting her about her precociously large breasts. It's a team sport-except for Peck (Lawrence Hecht), her uncle by marriage. A much more refined kind of cracker from a respectable South Carolina family, Peck is the only member of her family who treats Li'l Bit as a person and not a miniature Dolly Parton.
Vogel unravels her story in nonlinear fashion, passing through key and not-so-key events in the seven years before Li'l Bit turned 18. We see the girl's grotesque home life, the teasing of jealous schoolmates, her first photography session with her uncle, the first instance of molestation, her driving lessons, her troubles in college, and the fateful night of her 18th birthday when she must decide what to do about Peck.
This is a play about control, or loss of control. Hence the driving metaphor, in which Peck constantly reminds his protégé to master the vehicle in order to control it. Control is also at work in the central relationship. Their affair was clearly sparked by Peck, but it's kept afire by Li'l Bit. In exchange for meeting him once a week for a "drive," Li'l Bit gets the alcoholic Peck to swear he'll quit drinking. It's an arrangement in which both derive what they need: someone to care for. It doesn't hurt that Peck gets to feel up Li'l Bit from time to time or that, for the first time, Li'l Bit feels adequate around an adult.
For this play to truly work, we must feel compassion and disgust for Peck and sympathy for and anger toward Li'l Bit. Hecht's layered, multifaceted performance makes that possible for Peck; Parsons' performance does not. She never rises to the challenge of wresting control of the relationship from Peck, and she is never manipulative or even sensual enough. The result is more like a love story than Vogel's script suggests, a Driving Miss Daisy between the generations. It makes for a gentler ride, but it's certainly not as frighteningly honest or intense at it could be.
Neil Simon wrote the book for Sweet Charity, the Bob Fosse-conceived show whose productions are typically tedious, hamstrung by the playwright's witty but mindless script. But in director Kirsten Brandt's hands, this Sweet Charity feels like what Fosse (who adapted the play from Fellini's 1957 film Nights of Cabiria) might have conceived if he'd been working in the '90s. It's a masterful blend of Broadway saccharine and avant-garde theatrical sensibilities, with plenty of jagged edges. Choreographer Gina Angelique contributes some stunning modern-dance choreography, and the excellent ensemble (led by Sledgehammer stalwart Julie Jacobs) is almost good enough to compensate for the potato-chip-thin plot and inherent dumbness.
Almost. Brandt doesn't quite achieve the feminist reworking of this show she evidently is aiming for, but this Sweet Charity provokes more thought than a Neil Simon story is usually worth. Take, for example, the standard treatment of Charity's fellow dancers in the fandango club-a wise-cracking sassy group of sisters just trying to make a buck. Here, they're a desperate, coke-snorting, vodka-guzzling coven of burnouts who realize their lives are shit and there ain't nothing that's going to make them better. They're still likeable, but they're decadent and very hopeless.
Charity hasn't quite made the jump from hostess to whore, and she isn't quite as cynical as the rest. She still believes in the power of love, and she believes it's going to save her. By providing Charity's portrait with a darker frame and by giving her more power, we get a different story: she's no innocent waif looking for a man to protect her; love is her way out of the hole that is her life, and she's going to continue to cultivate that hope and dream the crazy dream, regardless of how many assholes bully, rob and cheat her or even break her heart.
Power finally unites both Charity and Li'l Bit. Charity has the choice to either turn bitter and cold or continue to look for love; Li'l Bit has the choice to forgive Peck-and herself-or continue to live in shame as a victim. Both plays end on the upswing: Charity awakens in Central Park to a bunch of flower children reciting one word: "Love." Meanwhile, the grown-up Li'l Bit drives a dark country road, smiles, floors the accelerator, and roars off into a night bursting with stars. Where either life ends is unknowable, but it's obvious that both are doing the only thing any of us can do in a world of fractured hearts and failing dreams: keep believing and keep moving.
Sweet Charity at the Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 6th Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Nov. 29, 2 p.m. Through Nov. 29. $15-$18; students, $10;How I Learned to Drive at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, (619) 231-3586. Tues., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Nov. 29. $21-$32.