The Piano Lesson

August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Piano Lesson, is being presented at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre for the very first time. It is a magical, spiritual, and emotional story of the Charles family, wrestling with the past; Boy Willie wants to sell the family piano to buy a farm and move on from the tragic past, but his sister Berniece wants to keep the piano, as she is unable to separate from the past. The ornately carved piano is more than a possession - it was once owned by the Sutter family, plantation owners who purchased the piece in exchange for slave ancestors of Berniece and Boy Willie. The land Boy Willie wants to buy also comes from the Sutter estate - and the ghost of the late Mr. Sutter becomes a threatening presence in the Pittsburgh Hill District home of Berniece, her Uncle Doaker and her daughter Maretha.

The show begins as Boy Willie (Harvy Blanks, pictured at left) arrives at the Pittsburgh house, accompanied by friend Lymon and a truckload of watermelons. The potential revenue from the sale of the watermelons comprises one part of Boy Willie's funds to purchase the land; the final part, he intends, will be the proceeds from the sale of the piano which he owns with Berniece (Kim Staunton). Other friends and relatives come and go during Boy Willie's stay, including another uncle, Wining Boy (Charles Weldon); and friend, now Reverend, Avery, who wishes to marry Berniece. Through conversations, arguments, and storytelling, the history of the family and the piano comes to light. By play's end, everyone has been forced to face and reconcile their feelings about the piano and the past, with the help of the ghost's presence.

Harvy Blanks delivers a tour de force portrayal of Boy Willie. An anxious, idealistic, strong-willed yet frightened man, Boy Willie has many reasons for wanting the land transaction to go through. Blanks magnificently covers every aspect of Boy Willie's personality as the family is stirred up by Willie's arrival and intentions. With the responsibility of delivering several lengthy monologues, de rigueur with August Wilson's works, Blanks holds true to his character's personality throughout and brings as much plausibility to the ending as is possible. His performance is truly remarkable and highly commendable.

Director Israel Hicks keeps the pace brisk and interesting, a challenge in this nearly 3 hour production. Hicks, who has directed all of Wilson's plays except the brand new Gem of the Ocean, presents the play's balance between letting go of the past and holding on to one's heritage. Set and costumes by Michael Brown and Christine Field, respectively, are perfect.

The Piano Lesson continues at the Public Theater's O'Reilly Theatre through May 25. For ticket and schedule information, call 412-316-1600 or visit

Blanks is supported in fine form by the rest of the cast, especially the moving performance by Kim Staunton as Berniece and outstanding work from Michael Eaddy (Lymon) and Charles Weldon (Wining Boy). Also turning in exemplary performances are Terence Riggins as Avery and January Murelli, sassy as one night stand Grace. Young Shaquela Davis (who alternates he role of Maretha with Kaitlyn Findley) made a good impression as well.

Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons

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-- Ann Miner

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