Salt Lake City — Pinnacle Acting Company delivered a knock out production of the Pulitzer Prize winning drama How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, and was the clear highlight of the Fringe Festival for me. The plot revolves around the sexual relationship between Li’l Bit (Alyssa Franks) and her uncle, Uncle Peck (Brian Pilling), in rural Beltsville, Maryland throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. The subject matter is dark and disturbing, though Vogel’s writing, combined with the excellent direction by Shannon Musgrave, along with a talented cast of actors, found moments of comedy throughout, keeping the experience engaging and from becoming too heavy.
Vogel utilized an ensemble of three actors to portray the various supporting characters as a Greek Chorus who act as narrators of the piece, played by Anne Louise Brings, Barbara Smith and Michael Calacino. Some of the greatest moments of comedy came from Barbara Smith as the “Teenage Greek Chorus” during her portrayal as Li’l Bit’s Aunt. Her monologues where she gives Li’l Bit advice on proper drinking behavior for a woman were absolutely hilarious, and Smith delivered a strong and nuanced performance with excellent comedic timing and the right mix of Southern charm and wackiness.
Musgrave found the emotional beats throughout the production and balanced the drama and comedy in an engaging and natural manner. Franks found ways to portray the various ages as Li’l Bit throughout with physicality and mannerisms that assisted in the storytelling. She brought an innocent quality to Li’l Bit as she sorted through her feelings towards her Uncle. Many of the scenes between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck are extremely uncomfortable and Pilling brought a disturbingly likable quality as the Uncle that is luring and manipulative of his young niece. Pilling expertly found a way to make me feel sorry for him in spite of his reprehensible acts against his niece, making me feel that he is a damaged man in need of help as opposed to a hideous villain, which so easily his character could have become.
Brings and Calacino as the “Male and Female Greek Chorus” successfully played a wide assortment of characters of various ages. Their physical choices and varied vocals changes with each character and helped to create believable characters that differentiated clearly between the many characters they portrayed.
The story is presented through a series of flashbacks and hopscotching between the present and past, allowing events in the present to trigger memories from the past. The metaphor of driving a car cleverly remained the literal vehicle for the various events in the past and present, triggering memories of some of the first moments of sexual abuse between Li’l Bit and her Uncle. In addition, this metaphor shows Li’l Bit escaping and driving away to create her own life free of abuse, indicating hope by the end of the play that her past experiences would not forever hinder her from having a happy and successful life.
The play examines roles of women in the 1960’s and the blind eye that was often turned towards sexual abuse or incest even within the family. Alcoholism is another theme explored and a contributor to the scenes between Uncle Peck and Li’l Bit. Peck introduces his niece to alcohol at a young age and uses her intoxicated state to take advantage of her. Ultimately Peck drinks himself to death after being left by his wife and abandoned by Li’l Bit.
The simplicity of the set made up of chairs and blocks, as necessary for the Fringe Festival’s rotating shows, was successfully utilized by the actors in establishing various locations. The set is especially effective in the car scenes as the central focal point of the set and the pivotal scenes. Natalie Colony‘s lighting design also aided in establishing various locations through isolated pools of light and defining the locations of each scene.
I hope that Pinnacle Acting Company considers a remount of this production with more complete production elements so that a wider audience will get the opportunity to see this thought provoking and powerful piece. The themes explored are widely relatable and relevant, and inspiring to “drive” forward with your life without allowing trials and challenges of your past to hold you back from finding happiness and success.