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You’ll want to attend to the silence at How I Learned to Drive. It’s an intermittent quiet—deliberately so—but it’s a rich and telling one, a quiet that says worlds about communal understanding and shared experience.

I confess I didn’t notice it at first—couldn’t hear the hush, what with so much laughter filling the auditorium—which may be why I spent the first half of the evening wondering what had prompted all the sober, analytical New York raves for this play. Between the jokes and the goofily flip staging, Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning road trip through the wilds of adolescent sexuality, incest, and pedophilia comes close to being a laff riot much of the time. Sounds unlikely, but it is. Still, all of the humor turns out to be strategic: The laughs get you to a place where the silence is not just possible, but necessary.

Simply stated, How I Learned to Drive is the story of Li’l Bit (Deirdre Lovejoy) and her sexual awakening at the hands of her Uncle Peck (Kurt Rhoads). But there’s nothing simple about the playwright’s take on the situation. You think you know where this subject matter has to go, but as often as not, it heads toward uncharted territory instead.

Vogel presents Li’l Bit as a self-possessed young writer in her 30s (in Molly Smith’s staging, she’s pointedly one of us, stepping onto the stage from the auditorium rather than from the wings) who is remembering her youth in flashbacks. Only some of her memories have to do with the driving lessons Uncle Peck gave her in his ’56 Chevy. The play’s chronology bounces—seemingly at random, but with more purpose than is initially evident—from the present to the early ’70s, when the protagonist was downing a fifth of Canadian VO daily in her college dorm, to the mid-’60s, when she was first developing breasts (and couldn’t decide whether they were alien orbs or casings for radio transmitters tuned to a frequency only boys could hear).

Lovejoy’s wide-eyed delivery makes the most of such pronouncements as “I was 16 before I realized that ‘pedophilia’ did not mean people who like to bicycle.” But she also gives her character’s anger and ambivalence their due. Considering that the script requires her to leap abruptly from innocence to knowing sophistication, from despair to fits of giggles, the clarity she achieves is impressive, especially when she’s separating the feelings she has for her uncle in the flashbacks from the feelings she experiences as she remembers their time together.

Though Uncle Peck is dismissed by one character as “a small-town hick who’s learned how to make drinks from Hugh Hefner,” the play tries to see him mostly through the eyes of the little girl he loves too much. It’s a complicated portrait, not merely because Peck is a man of many faces (some presented to the world at large, others only to Li’l Bit), but also because the sensibility through which he’s being filtered keeps changing.

Fortunately for Arena’s production, Rhoads brings an air of hesitant self-knowledge, as well as a drawl of pure molasses and charm that won’t quit, to his performance. Vogel has given him scenes in which he could easily make excuses for the character, but he doesn’t engage in special pleading. His Peck is at once concerned for Li’l Bit’s welfare and the biggest threat to that welfare, and the actor makes sure that the balance he strikes is what throws the audience off balance. It’s an unnerving performance, upright and perverse at the same time. This is a man who does monstrous things, but who loves, nonetheless—a man who can ply his niece with liquor while urging her to drive defensively and somehow rationalize the dissonance.

Interspersed with Li’l Bit’s driving lessons are scenes in which the mature Li’l Bit recalls everyday domesticity in a broken but close family that had all sorts of issues. Dinners with her mother and grandparents were apt to devolve into either screaming matches or lectures, but as filtered through the playwright’s vision, both outcomes tend to result in hilarity.

Take a riff that Li’l Bit’s mom (Sarah Marshall) delivers on the rules for combining alcohol with dating. Tossing off such admonitions as “Don’t drink anything with sugar or an umbrella…or with a sexual position in the name, like Dead Man Screw,” Marshall begins in the manner of an etiquette instructor, then graduates to locutions that sound more like standup comedy, and finally arrives at outright slapstick while sliding from sobriety to such a finely calibrated state of inebriation that you’re left gasping. Later, when the actress switches gears (and wigs) so that, as Peck’s prim, seemingly oblivious wife, she can deliver a haunting haymaker of a speech that begins, “I am not a fool; I know what’s going on,” she takes away your breath for other reasons altogether.

Rhea Seehorn is also very fine, both as an orgasm-deprived granny who’d be right at home on The Beverly Hillbillies and as a scarily vulnerable 11-year-old. And the simplest compliment I can pay Timmy Ray James is to admit that until the curtain call, I thought there were two of him, so varied are the clueless grandfather, knowing waiter, and virginal teen he plays during the course of the evening.

That course, it should be noted, doesn’t always run smooth in Smith’s staging, though it’s hard to say whether the roughness is the fault of the play or the director. Probably both. With performers already required to switch moods or characters with nearly every lighting change, it’s not wise of Smith to let scenes ricochet so quirkily around Kate Edmunds’ two-level setting, and to let the chronology linking them to be so unclear. Patrons will find themselves doing calculations of the if-this-is-1969-then-she’s-how-old? variety at the beginning of way too many scenes.

Still, if the plot seems overly fragmented, it undeniably adds up. By the evening’s midpoint, those pin-droppable hushes are proliferating the way “amens” do at an AA meeting, raising the tension nearly every time Peck and Li’l Bit occupy the stage together. The quiets proliferate so much that ascribing them to situation seems too easy, and you begin to suspect that something else is going on—that they may be less about what is happening to the heroine than about what isn’t happening to us.

For in telling a story about manipulation of the powerless—a story in which Uncle Peck repeatedly assures Li’l Bit he won’t do anything until she wants him to do it—the author has opted not to manipulate us into the easy catharsis we can’t help yearning for. Fitting, no? Pedophilia is loathsome, and the audience comes to How I Learned to Drive fully prepared to loathe. But Vogel has written a love story—unorthodox and troubled though it may be—and she’s damned if she’s going to make judgmental pronouncements about Uncle Peck and let everyone go home comfortable and self-righteous.

So in the penultimate scene, when the staging finds a visual equivalent for the disconnect the heroine feels—that out-of-body sensation that is part repression and part faded memory—and it turns out to be a visual equivalent that also works as a metaphor for the disconnect the audience has experienced all evening, a palpable stillness wraps the auditorium. The stage device is a simple one—a splitting of focus between two performers—and for a moment it just seems awkward. Then the audience forgets the device and experiences the disconnect: mingled horror and affection, disgust and yearning, fury and forgiveness.

The quiet becomes so intense that it feels for an instant as if patrons have actually forgotten to breathe…and perhaps they have. CP