Augustana College's How I Learned to Drive offers an interesting opportunity to compare the acting talents of performers at different points in their lives, as there's a marked contrast between Reader editor Mike Schulz's work and that of the students who compose the rest of the cast. Being beyond college-age (and hired here as a guest actor), Schulz is presumably more aware of the darkness in the world, the pain of real life, and the reality of what some would call sin. I imagine he's subsequently able to draw from what he knows and use it to shape his character, whereas it's apparent that the students are feigning their feelings. To be clear, that's not to say that the students are poor actors, and each one offered a notable performance during Friday's presentation. Compared to Schulz's effort, however, there are distinct differences in the sincerity of their portrayals.
Directed by Jennifer E. Popple, author Paula Vogel's play follows - although not in chronological sequence - the life journey of Li'l Bit (Robin Quinn) from age 11, when she first spends a few hours alone with her Uncle Peck (Schulz), to her 18th birthday, when she realizes her sexual relationship with her uncle (by marriage) is not a good thing. The audience is privy to Li'l Bit's driving lessons with Uncle Peck and his unhealthy attachment to her, and whether by Vogel's design or Schulz's portrayal, or a combination of both, the beauty of the piece is that Uncle Peck is not a one-note monster.
Because the story is told from Li'l Bit's perspective, Uncle Peck has some endearing qualities, suggesting that even the darkest souls are not simply creatures of evil with only evil in mind. Uncle Peck adores cars and driving, is protective of those he loves, is patient, and despite his pedophilic nature, seems a good man; like all of us, he isn't constantly consumed by sinful thoughts and wants. That's not to excuse his behavior by any means, but I do applaud Vogel and Schulz for how they shape this figure. Through the gentle nature of Schulz's Uncle Peck, with his (utterly believable) Southern accent and unhurried pace, it's easy to like him for his positive qualities, while also being disgusted by his negative ones. Schulz so transforms his being that, were the actor not a personal friend of mine, I would've believed that his personality, speech, and mannerisms are not unlike those of his character. The climax and denoument of Vogel's tale are moving, in great part, because Schulz's Uncle Peck is human.
Quinn, meanwhile, is convincing as Li'l Bit, navigating her way through her character's ages with appropriate shifts in body language and vocal inflection. The truest element of her portrayal - what doesn't seem at all feigned - is Li'l Bit's connection to Uncle Peck, and their disturbingly beautiful relationship kept me wishing that Peck would drop his physical interest in his niece and focus on his efforts to protect her emotions and promote her education. Through Quinn's and Schulz's chemistry, I understood why Li'l Bit didn't flee from her uncle, enduring his advances to the point where she even initiates a physical encounter.
Each of the other cast members offers at least one first-rate moment while on stage. With Jo Vasquez, it's the broken, pained look her Aunt Mary gives the audience when revealing what she knows of her husband's ways. Jacquelyn Schmidt is most entertaining when her Mother explains the rules of drinking for women while getting increasingly drunk herself; Schmidt slurs and (physically) stumbles through her monologues, and elicits some of the evening's biggest laughs. Amy Sanders is equally amusing as Li'l Bit's grandmother, her hunched-over posture and vocal mimicry of an elderly person fully embodying Grandma's sharp wit and quick-thinking nature. And as the Male Greek Chorus, Michael Pazzol and Sean Serluco weave their way through various characters, altering their characterizations remarkably well to fit their multiple roles.
Popple's treatment of Vogel's material is impressive and touching, and her careful pacing allows the show's themes to settle in gradually. Her work is made even richer by Adam Parboosingh's lighting-design choices, which oftentimes cast (appropriate) shadows on the actors rather than washing them in full light. The scene-setting images Parboosingh projects onto a curtain also beautifully shape the play's ambiance, and with the technical elements blending with the performances, Vogel's script, and Popple's staging, How I Learned to Drive winds up flat-out-brilliant, despite the unseemly content at its core.
For tickets and information, call (309)794-7306 or visit Augustana.edu.