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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Penumbra's The Piano Lesson packs the heft of history

Also see Ed's reviews of Eleanor's Cabinet and My Fair Lady

August Wilson's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson envelopes the Penumbra stage in the epic sweep and punch of American history. Wilson has woven magical realism deep into its fabric, and yet the characters, their time and place in history, and the cadences of their speech feel as real as living people in Penumbra Theatre's powerhouse production.

The pressing necessity to close the past and the equal necessity to preserve its legacy, with all its richness and pain, is the source of conflict in the play and is embodied in the hand-carved upright piano that stands in Doaker Charles' 1936 living room in Pittsburgh.

Doaker and his niece, Berniece, are a part of the first generation of African-Americans to migrate from the South to the North in search of better lives. On Ken Evan's superbly detailed set, the carved piano is the focus of the action. A slave owner by the name of Sutter once bartered a mother and her child across state lines for the piano, and the household in Pittsburgh are comprised of that child's descendents. Carved into the woodwork of the piano are the faces of the bartered slaves and their ancestors. It is now a valuable collector's piece, and an offer has been made. For widowed Berniece, the piano is sacrosanct, the bearer of family history. For her impulsive younger brother, Boy Willie, it is the bag full of money he needs to buy the old Sutter farm in Mississippi, his way of avenging the Sutters for the enslavement of his family.

As brother and sister, both have equal claim to the piano, and the piano possesses powers of its own. Newly dead Sutter's ghost haunts the family, and whispering darkness wraps the house whenever Boy Willie attempts to move the piano.

In a uniformly strong cast, Ansa Akyea's Boy Willie is superb, but tune your ear to catch his rapid-fire speech. He fills the stage with Willie's volatile presence. He's a chancer, a whip-fast talker, demanding, funny and likeable, a loud-mouth, who can rip out a bum-wagging boogie woogie on the piano and dance like a twisting rope of water. In contrast, Greta Oglesby as his sister Berniece has innate dignity and an inner power. Berniece is raising her 11-year-old daughter in her uncle Doaker's house and works cleaning white women's houses. She still grieves for her dead husband and blames Willie for his death.

Rock-faced James Craven plays Doaker, an older man who has worked 27 years on the railroad. He tries to stay neutral in the face of his warring relatives. Years ago, he and his two brothers stole the piano from the Sutters, and his brother Charles was burned to death in revenge. His surviving brother, Wining Boy, played winningly by Dennis W. Spears, is another engaging chancer, a talented pianist and one time recording star, now down on his luck and a drinker.

Berniece is being courted by Avery, an earnest man who has felt the Lord's call to preach and start his own church. T. Mychael Rambo affects, with accomplished nuance, a preacher's mannerisms and cadences that still fit like an unaccustomed new coat. In fine support acting, Ashford Thomas, Natalia Gaston and Larea Carter round out the cast as Boy Willie's country-boy road buddy, Berniece's 11-year-old daughter and an attractive but easy local woman.

Underpinning the action is the frightening belief that whoever owns the piano, owns the family, and superstition suggests that murdered Sutter is still laying claim to it.

Under Lou Bellamy's impassioned direction, all elements, from fine acting to technical support, fuse to create an evening of potent theater. Music infuses the play, from Sanford Moore's bluesy, recorded score, to piano playing on stage, and an affecting chain gang song that all the men know too well from working on a Mississippi prison farm. Malo Adams' sound design includes the rhythmic roar of trains that run on tracks immediate to the house, muttered whisperings and lightening bolt crashes. The light design by Michelle Habeck shifts with the mood of the play and teeters near melodrama, when magical realism comes into its own at the play's dramatic end.

Penumbra's The Piano Lesson gripped me, made me laugh and truly care for this family.

The Piano Lesson, February 19 - March 16, 2008. Wednesdays, 10:00 a.m. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays, 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15 - $35. Call 651- 224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org. Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul.


- Elizabeth Weir



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