Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The Piano Lesson
American Stage


Sati Word, Kim Sullivan, Bryant Bentley and Alan Bomar Jones
The saga rolls on as American Stage presents The Piano Lesson, sixth production in their traversal of August Wilson's Century Cycle of ten plays. This play is one of the strongest, as it shows the movement from South to North in search of financial betterment. The characters residing at Doaker Charles' home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have roots in the South and when family and friends unexpectedly show up, the yearning for down home surfaces. The central conflict is about a family heirloom piano, which is in the possession of one sibling and desired for sale by another in his quest to buy farming land. The history of the piano is intertwined with the ugly institution of slavery. Even in the late 1930s, 70 years after the end of the Civil War, family stories are still strongly intertwined with slavery's aftermath. In addition to the central story, we get a glimpse of race relations in the south, circa 1890 - 1930.

American Stage puts everything they have to offer into the August Wilson cycle. The casts for all of the plays are larger than most mid-sized theaters can comfortably handle, here eight important roles. All are well done. Alan Bomar Jones and Kim Sullivan, who have been stalwarts of this series, are impressive as Doaker Charles, owner of the home where all the action takes place, and Wining Boy. Doaker is the presumptive male head of these friends and relations, and he brings emotional strength to the role. Mr. Sullivan also does very well in his supporting part. Bryant Bentley as Boy Willie, who is the center of the conflict, along with Tanesha Gary as Berniece, is excellent in a part he has previously played in Columbus, Ohio, and won a nomination for best actor in, according to his biography. He is able to bring to life a man, cocky on the outside, but not really sure of himself underneath. Ms. Gary's Berniece is all focus on what has to happen, surviving day to day and raising her 12-year-old daughter right. Nothing can be allowed to distract her, not a potential second husband, and not a brother who has his own agenda. ranney as Avery Brown, the above mentioned suitor, is all religious strength and strong male. Sati Word as Boy Willie's friend Lymon, Chloe Jackson as Maretha (she alternates with Shakenya Clark in this part), and Brandy Grant as Grace all give good support.

The direction by Mark Clayton Southers is by and large very good, but there are a few problems. The opening scene does not quickly come into focus. This is partly the problem of playwright Wilson. Many of the 10 plays have the same lack of immediate clarity, but I saw a production of Jitney a few weeks ago that immediately drew the audience in, even with a less cohesive opening. The other problem is with the ending, an exorcism that borders on being a dues ex machina to bring about a resolution of the conflict around the piano. Because of its dramatic artificiality, it's possibly almost impossible to stage well, and here it is not. I previously saw The Piano Lesson at Boston's Huntington Theater, in a production by Lloyd Richardson, directorial muse of August Wilson, and the same scene still wasn't all that believable. In between these, Mr. Southers gets some fine acting from his cast. Alan Bomar Jones, Bryant Bentley, Sati Word and Kim Sullivan are nothing short of mesmerizing in the slave song sequence—when it is over the audience can finally breathe. Right after that, Mr. Jones is riveting in the monologue about the piano's history, and Mr. Bentley and Ms. Gary are stunning in the confrontation scene that is the center of act two, scene one.

The play is staged on the same basic set that was used for November - December's production of The Doll's House. What was very effective for 17th century Sweden is a bit less so for mid 20th century Northeast America. There were a few changes made, but nowhere is the poverty that hangs over these people properly suggested. Last year's set for Seven Guitars strongly illustrated the consuming poverty that wears people down. Costumes by Saidah Ben Judah and Lighting Design by Mike Wood are more effective, especially the lightning storm that proceeds the exorcism.

I am pleased that American Stage has committed to doing the entire cycle of August Wilson's plays; they are important plays and the company has been doing an excellent job. I was delighted to find out recently that National Public Radio is going to produce audio versions of all ten plays and make them available for study. The only thing better than that would be to have all 10 in well acted video productions.

American Stage Theater Company presents August Wilson's The Piano Lesson through March 2, 2013, at the Raymond James Theatre, 163 3rd Street North in St. Petersburg. For ticket and performance information, visit americanstage.org.

Cast (in order of appearance)
Doaker Charles: Alan Bomar Jones*
Boy Willie: Bryant Bentley*
Lymon: Sati Word
Berniece: Tanesha Gary*
Maretha: Shakenya Clark and Chloe Jackson
Avery Brown: ranney*
Wining Boy: Kim Sullivan*
Grace: Brandy Grant

* Member Actor's Equity Association

Direction: Mark Clayton Southers
Scenic Design: Frank Chavez
Lighting Design: Mike Wood
Costume Design: Saidah Ben Judah
Sound Design: Lynne Locher
Production Stage Manager: Stephen M. Ray, Jr.*


Photo: Roman Black

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--William S. Oser


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