Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Piano Lesson
Court Theatre

Also see John's reviews La Cage aux Folles and The History Boys

Brian Weddington
The Goodman Theater for many years has been the place in Chicago to see August Wilson's plays. Now that it has produced all ten of the plays in Wilson's cycle of dramas dealing with the 20th century African-American experience, it may be time for the Court to assume that mantle. I missed their Fences last season, but this production of The Piano Lesson is a lively, funny and moving creation that ought to bring new audiences to Wilson's work and re-introduce him to old ones. Director Ron OJ Parson, who did Fences for the Court, says he hopes to do all ten there and, based on this production, they couldn't be in better hands.

The Piano Lesson is set in the 1930s but the historical context is the Great Migration north of African Americans and the post-reconstruction-era South that they left. It concerns the Charles family, who has mostly relocated to Pittsburgh from Mississippi, but who are quite literally haunted by the Sutter family, who owned their ancestors as slaves. The action is set in the Pittsburgh home of Doaker Charles. Charles lives with his adult niece Berniece and her young daughter Maretha, who moved there after the death of Berniece's husband. In the living room sits an upright piano that had belonged to the master of Doaker's grandparents and father. The piano cabinet includes depictions of the Charles family carved by Doaker's grandfather at Master Sutter's request. Years later, after slavery was ended, an adult Doaker, his brother Wining Boy and Berniece's father Boy Willie stole the piano from Sutter's son, believing that getting the piano out the Sutters' possession would finally free the Charleses from the Sutters' grip.

At the opening of the play, Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, arrives at the home in Pittsburgh planning to raise enough money to buy the Sutter farm back in Mississippi. He intends to do this through selling a truckload of watermelons, as well as selling the family piano against Berniece's wishes. Their uncle Wining Boy, a broken-down alcoholic former performer, arrives from Kansas City for a visit at about the same time, making for an unscheduled family reunion. The generally realistic comedy-drama gives way to out-and -out supernatural fantasy as the Charleses must do battle with the ghost of Sutter's son. It becomes an exorcism of sorts enabling Berniece to accept the deaths of her husband and her father, as well as her family history as descendents of slaves. On the way to that climax, Wilson shows the difficulties African Americans experienced in the transition from rural to city life, largely through the character Lymon, a friend who accompanies Boy Willie to Pittsburgh and intends to stay there.

This cast of richly detailed characters is fully realized by Parson's direction and his superb cast. A.C. Smith's Doaker is compassionate and strong—a rock of the family even as the subtext he plays suggests being a pillar is not the role he intended. Boy Willie is a selfish motormouth and Ronald Connor is able to make him irritating enough that there's a catharsis when Doaker finally tells him to "shut up" late in the play. Even so, we learn enough of his struggle to make a life for himself that he's not entirely unsympathetic. Tyla Abercrombie's Berniece is as strong and determined as Boy Willie and in that sense as perfect foil for Boy Willie.

Supporting roles are richly performed as well, beginning with Alfred H. Wilson's Wining Boy, a charming drunk of a con man. Brian Weddington is Lymon, the friend who wants to make a new life in Pittsburgh and find himself a good woman as soon as possible. He's simple and sweet but not entirely unmanipulative either. Avery, the preacher who wants Berniece to marry him is played by Allen D. Edge as a bit of huckster, yet not quite slick enough to win her over. Comic relief is nicely provided by Alexis J. Rogers as a local girl who, in looking for a good time, wanders in to this troubled family at the worst possible time. China Gray and M. Allettie Smith alternate as Maretha and on opening night, Miss Gray gave a genuine, authentic performance as the daughter.

Parson's direction keeps the three-hour play moving (though the second act still, at roughly 90 minutes, feels long) and matches his excellent cast with top-notch production design. Keith Pitts's set is a realistic depiction of a lower middle-class but nicely kept up home. The costumes by Christine Pascual, ranging from country garb for Boy Willie and Lymon, to faux fashion for the flamboyant Wining Boy, working class wear for Doaker and nightlife attire for Grace and are colorful and convincingly period throughout. The lighting design by Richard Norwood and sound design by Nick Keenan are especially effective for the play's supernatural moments.

The Piano Lesson entertains, educates and inspires and this production is a showcase theatre talent of the highest order. The last eight plays of Wilson's ten-play canon, which Court will immediately continue with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom this fall, should give us much to anticipate over coming seasons.

The Piano Lesson will be performed through June 7, 2009 at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637. For tickets, visit the box office, or call 773-753-4472.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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