He Said: CSC’s ‘Drive’ evokes empathy

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the CSC Theatre Department loves to make us revel in the dark underbelly of humanity with its Black Box productions. Personally, I love them for it.

“How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel is no exception. The play plumbs the depths of the meaning of life and the resonance of celestial orbs. Except the resonance is with the universality of mundane life in suburban Maryland, and those orbs are the breasts of a young girl in the admiring words of her lecherous uncle Peck.

CSC’s production flourishes under the direction of Amanda Pintore, senior of Omaha. Becci French, sophomore of Alliance, plays the protagonist Li’l Bit most convincingly in the younger scenes. French’s youthful bewilderment is her strength in the role, but it lends an eerie quality to those scenes where Li’l Bit is older. It seems almost as if Li’l Bit never grows out of what happens to her, though she thinks otherwise. Her uncertainty throughout informs the expectations for the audience, as we are dragged back and forth from liking and hating Peck, played Mason Quinn, senior of Cheyenne, Wyo.

The relationship recalls Nabokov’s “Lolita,” although Peck never reaches Humbert Humbert’s height of depravity.

The time line shifts around in the non-linear way that memory does. In one scene Li’l Bit is 17, in her 30s in the next, and 11 years old in another. The audience is left to sift through the plot and make its own conclusions as each scene unfolds another layer to the complex relationship between Li’l Bit, and Peck.

The cast is rounded out by the strong performances of the three Greek Choruses, each of whom fills in numerous secondary roles.

The Female Greek Chorus is played by HeatherAnn Hicks, junior of Brigham City, Utah, and the Teen Greek Chorus by Ashley Daniels, freshman of Sheridan, Wyo. Hicks is at her best in scenes as Li’l Bit’s sturdy but defeated mother as she spars with Daniels’ hilarious and tragic intimations of the Grandmother.

The Male Greek Chorus, played by James Safarik, sophomore of Hyannis, sets the tone early on. In a flashback scene, the ever-changing Safarik shows what the patriarch in Li’l Bit’s family thinks of women. Safarik takes on the role of Li’l Bit’s grandfather Big Papa who, learning of her intention for college, says, “What does she need a college degree for when she’s got all the credentials she needs on her chest?”

In light of her family’s rejection of her individuality and heavy-handed edicts to fall into their way of life, it’s un-surprising when Li’l Bit’s relationship with Peck is shown to be the only supportive one in her life.

Quinn, a veteran of some of CSC’s heaviest roles, is masterful in the role of Peck. His manner and appearance as Peck give the character the spectre of a Civil War infantryman, fitting for one who hails from South Carolina. His Peck convincingly defies dismissal as purely a sexual predator. His attraction to Li’l Bit is shown to be just like hers to him—that is, all about finding acceptance in the only place it’s offered.

The play could be said to explore the positive side of pedophilia—which Li’l Bit reflects she used to think meant “people who love to bicycle”—but there really is no positive side to it. Or at least, every positive is quickly met by a stronger negative from Peck. There are episodes where Li’l Bit seems to want to be involved with Peck, and even enjoys the idea, but she always comes back around. Through the end, she remains torn between the desire for the acceptance she only gets from Peck, and her growing knowledge that his intentions are unsavory and immoral.

In an interview, Vogel told the Boston Phoenix, “What I wanted to do was to write a play so equally balanced in empathy that, as with the experience of reading Lolita, both men and women would project themselves but project themselves equally into Lolita and Humbert Humbert.”

The play requires some suspension of knee-jerk judgments of right and wrong. CSC’s production keeps true to Vogel’s intention, evoking empathy for Li’l Bit and Peck in equal measure, but never at the same time.

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