Alienation in microcosm is Cho’s usual modus operandi, and has manifested itself in her other plays with varying degrees of success. But unlike the fishes out of water at the center of her recent works Durango and BFE, the outcast of primary importance here is never seen onstage. A refugee of a war-torn country who saw terrible violence inflicted on his family and friends before escaping to the United States, he ostensibly went on to live a normal life with a normal wife but was forever haunted by his own destructive memories and the color of his skin.
His wife, the teacher of the title, was known to her students only as Mrs. K, the short form of her husband’s late and unpronounceable name. He died a number of years ago, and left her behind with the house, the piano, and a case of arthritis to remind her of all she has and what she’s lost. And her recollections of him? Sweetness and light, of course. Well, mostly: There was the occasional shadowy undercurrent, perhaps, but overall he was a good man she believes deserved better from life and people than he typically received.
From Mrs. K’s opening monologue, at least 10 minutes in length, to its closing counterpart some 80 minutes later, it’s clear she’s fashioned her life as one in which the truth is always one possibility of several - and often the least interesting one. So when she’s swept by a wave of nostalgia that leads her to contact her old students, there’s little doubt that the two who respond, Mary Fields (Carmen M. Herlihy) and Michael (John Boyd), will have to be the ones to help her sort out reality, regardless of how uncomfortable the process may be.
Were it not for Elizabeth Franz’s performance in the central role and Kate Whoriskey’s fireside-chat direction, the play would forever be on the brink of collapsing under the burden of its own predictability. Even Derek McLane’s cozy living-room set and Ilona Somogyi’s bespeak convention, promising the presence of a woman who wouldn’t be out of place on most late-‘50s black-and-white sitcoms. (Mrs. K’s early interaction with the audience, in which she descends into the house bearing a plate of cookies, suggests this is exactly the direction in which things are headed.)
But Franz’s grandmotherly delicacy transforms the too-talkative Mrs. K into a bewitching case study on the psychological dangers of secret-keeping. This may be a woman of faded charms and even dimmer perspectives, but in this actress’s hands she becomes an ingratiating, yet relevant, relic of now-vanished eras in which propriety was king, queen, and court.
Yet Franz never makes Mrs. K into the hackneyed, stand-by-your-man stereotype she might resemble on paper. When she objects to insinuations that her husband might have been propagating the darkness he carried with him, you never believe she’s intentionally lying. Franz weaves the woman’s web of personal deceit into a warm winter shawl, giving Mrs. K a protection and strength that gradually forces you to see just how much of her husband she herself was responsible for creating.
While Herlihy does beautifully understated work as the sympathetic student who’s gone onto success and Boyd never quite convinces as the bitter boy who didn’t, they and Franz do successfully summon for us the tortured spirit of Mr. K. That’s the play’s biggest problem. He’s so vividly painted by all three that you’re forced to realize what’s missing from the characters you’re seeing onstage: personalities of their own.
Cho’s point is that the way we’re molded during our childhoods in turn affects the way we shape others as adults, and that the effects are frequently invisible until it’s too late. But she hasn’t delved deep enough into this trio’s own tortured souls to allow us to see the real impact on them of a man who was so violated in his youth that he could never grow to reach his full potential. Without that, it’s impossible to see what those he left behind will pass on to those who come after them. This most important story in The Piano Teacher is one that’s left almost entirely untold.
The Piano Teacher