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The Piano Lesson

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chuck Cooper, Jason Dirden, Brandon Dirden, and Roslyn Ruff
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Although he died more than seven years ago, playwright August Wilson lives on through the verbal music he kindled as part of his Century Cycle of ten plays chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century. And, as a mostly superb new revival at the Pershing Square Signature Center proves, perhaps none of those plays resounds with as much as sobering clarity as the one most directly about music itself: The Piano Lesson.

It's set in 1936, just past the midpoint of the timeline between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1997 events of Radio Golf, the final play chronologically. That placement is key, as it marks the turning point between the old and new ideas of slavery that war with each other throughout the Cycle: People are still at the mercy of the spirituality of the past, as depicted in Gem of the Ocean (laid in 1904) and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1911), and are also facing a future of evolving threats. And giving oneself completely to either the old or the new view is not yet possible.

In this brutally gutsy and realistic rendering, director Ruben Santiago-Hudson makes terrifyingly clear the myriad problems that still lie ahead for the black community of Pittsburgh (in which this play, like most of Wilson's others, is set). The vital foundation of the plot is here, and given its full due: Boy Willie has arrived at the home of his sister, Berniece, to take away their parents' piano and sell it to buy the land he'll use to start his new life, something she's reluctant to allow happen because of the tormented family history the instrument represents (and, thanks to carvings on its surface, depicts).

But that aspect of the story almost seems secondary to the theme of connecting with pasts that paradoxically may be better off forgotten. That's where the (literal) music comes in: In one scene, Boy Willie joins with his Southern sidekick Lymon, fading bon vivant Wining Boy, and Boy Willie and Berniece's uncle Doaker in singing a work song with an unsettling conviction; Wining Boy commandeers the piano at one point to pound out a drunken ballad to his lost love; and music likewise proves instrumental in dealing with the ghost of an ostensibly murdered man that Berniece is positive followed Boy Willie on his trek.

These sequences show that old wounds close slowly, but can only be ripped open again—or healed altogether—by addressing them in the present. This is, perhaps, the clearest statement of Wilson's ethos, and what gives The Piano Lesson its unique emotional thrust among his plays. It's also, not coincidentally, the one with the closest thing to a happy ending; the lessons here really are that elemental and transformational, if people decide to heed them. (Not that most people in Wilson's plays ever do, of course.)

This structural brilliance comes at something of a cost, however: the relative lack of impassioned monologues that help situate the characters within the context of their time. There are still speeches here, but they're more of the functional than of the set piece variety, the type that nudge the action along its track rather than fuel the furnace. And without them, the actors must work that much harder to make a vivid impression.

None of the members of this company have trouble in a large-scale way, but the cracks begin to show a bit on the more detailed and human level. Roslyn Ruff, to begin with, is a stern force of civilized nature in the many exchanges that pit Berniece against Boy Willie, or the potential paramours of Lymon and the enterprising preacher, Avery. But when Berniece must establish the links to the ghosts within the piano and the line of her forebears, she comes across as an isolated example rather than the newest link in the chain. Brandon J. Dirden stumbles similarly as Boy Willie, barreling through most of the three-hour evening with intense single-mindedness, but falling short when he must undergo the baptism by fire that softens and reorients his soul.

The other performers—James A. Williams as Doaker, Eric Lenox Abrams as Avery, Chuck Cooper as an especially robust Wining Boy, Mandi Masden as a fling of a woman Boy Willie brings home, and especially Jason Dirden as the overexcited Lymon—have less trouble integrating themselves with the roles their characters play in the work. But those roles are almost microscopic in comparison to Berniece and Boy Willie.

Even so, the lapses are so minor and occur so late that the overall impact of the production is barely lessened. Credit that to Santiago-Hudson's tight rein on everything, which manifests itself in both the jolting opening image (in which the pounding on a door seems to bring down designer Rui Rita's lights); the magnificent set (by Michael Carnahan), which focuses in on the austere reality of Doaker's house while suggesting the possibility of fantasy just beyond the property line; and, far from least, razor-sharp staging drenched in a blistering pace and guttural attitude that never let you forget what's at stake.

It makes sense: After all, Santiago-Hudson has the benefit of both personal experience with the playwright's milieu (he originated roles in both Gem of the Ocean and the 1940s play, Seven Guitars) and the foresight of the decades to come. As Wilson did, he knows just what notes to hit and what tempo will speak most to the listener. Wilson's figures, who spend a hundred years trying to better understand themselves and their place in America, may be driven by discordance. But their struggle, and its potential success, have rarely in recent years been rendered more melodious than in this version of The Piano Lesson.

The Piano Lesson
Through December 16
Signature Center at Pershing Square, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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