September 28, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 55°F


Cast’s performance puts play in gear

From left, Uncle Peck, played by sophomore Daniel Berlingeri, and Li’l Bit, played by senior Hannah Skye Wenzel, rehearse Nov. 18. The last performances of the show are at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. Parker Chen/The Ithacan

With lights descending upon the doo-wopping trio whose harmonic tones resound, and an electric ray of pinks and greens that beams around center stage alluring viewers, the mesmerizing opening scene of “How I Learned to Drive” braces the audience before the heavy performance unfolds.

The five-person cast of “How I Learned to Drive” floors the audience with its acting and ability to express raw emotions to address the play’s challenging theme.

“How I Learned to Drive,” written by Paula Vogel, tells the story of Li’l Bit, played by senior Hannah Skye Wenzel, as she unfolds the secrets of her abusive childhood. She takes the audience for a drive “in the reverse gear” — a metaphoric phrase repeated by the chorus indicating the character’s flashbacks — through her traumatic childhood. The series of flashbacks illustrates the transformative relationship between her maturing self and her pedophilic uncle, Peck, played by sophomore Daniel Berlingeri.

Wenzel’s truthful narration of Li’l Bit’s traumatic childhood poignantly brings her trauma to the stage. Her fluid ability to switch between different stages of Li’l Bit’s development binds the audience to her tales of misfortune. In contrast to her problems, the actress’ laughable exaggerations of sexuality and tipsy swirling of swizzle sticks after sipping martinis with her uncle offer comedic relief. This easily lets the audience face the reality of this weighted issue.

Enchanting the audience with his all-too appealing Southern charm, Berlingeri creates a sympathetic alignment to his character, which distracts the audience from Peck’s pedophilic nature. Berlingeri captures the effects of Peck’s psychological traumas from wartime combat in his cowardly refutations of alcohol and compelling sexual suggestions to his young niece. His show-stopping performance peaks at the climax, where Peck makes his first sexual advance on the 11-year-old Li’l Bit. As Berlingeri gropes Wenzel in fearless action his facial expression displays the character’s self-disgust. It leaves viewers contemplating his actions despite his compassion portrayed throughout the play.

The three supporting actors who make up the contemporary Greek chorus do a spot-on job as the minor figures essential to telling Li’l Bit’s story. Whether taking the stage as a doo-wop trio singing the blues or transforming from roles as family members to taunting classmates, junior Ned Donovan, senior Amber Wood and sophomore Celeste Rose brilliantly display their vocal talents and dramatic versatility. However, their metaphoric gear shifts get redundant with each scene change and trump their potent facial expressions and notable one-liners.

Director Wendy Dann, assistant professor of theater arts, masters Vogel’s use of erotic humor, including sexual innuendos and comical anecdotes on the nature of men, women and sex. Dann uses eccentric lighting and scene-appropriate sound effects to accentuate the actors’ emotional versatility, evoke receptive sentiments and engage the audience in the intimate performance.

Switching between stage-illuminating bulbs with color spectrums that stretch from cool blues to warm yellows and white lights that capture a dramatic monologue, the visual effects by senior Tyler Perry help emphasize Li’l Bit’s psychological state.

Further lending to the play’s realism, audio by Don Tindall, assistant professor of sound design, creates distinct moods for listeners to internalize. The sensual tones of Elvis Presley bring the audience back to the 1960s while the soft cricket chirps conjure a realistic sensory experience of the cool summer’s eve depicted on stage.

The courageous cast of “How I Learned to Drive” stuns the audience with its stellar performance. While technical perfection thrusts viewers into the setting, this play would be nothing without the courageous acting of the leads and the support of the chorus whose abilities provide a humorous context for the audience to confront the unsettling reality.