Regional Reviews: Seattle
The Piano Lesson
Also see David's review of Dirty Dancing
Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, Doaker Charles and his niece Berniece reside with her daughter Maretha in a home that showcases a marvelous old piano tied deeply to the roots of their family, going back to when their ancestors were kept as slaves in the Old South. Enter Berniece's shady but enterprising brother Boy Willie and his sweet-natured chum Lymon, with a loaded truck of watermelons to sell, and Boy Willie hankering to reap the money he can get for his share of selling the piano. Berniece is not about to part with it, after all the blood, sweat and tears that were poured into obtaining it from the slave owners and keeping it in pristine condition. Other visitors to the house and tied into the family history are sassy, saucy, and syncopated Wining Boy who never saw a glass of hooch he couldn't mooch, and Berniece's wannabe beau Avery, who wants to be a preacher and see in Berniece a perfect future preacher's wife. There is also the angry ghost of Sutter the slave owner on the premises, and said ghost is none too pleased with Boy Willie's plans to sell the piano and buy the land the Sutters once owned back in Mississippi.
Despite the supernatural undercurrents, the play is very naturalistic and the authenticity of its character portraits is unerring. Derrick Lee Weeden is masterfully understated in both his comic and dramatic moments, and his long reveal of the family history of the piano is spellbinding. Stephen Tyrone Williams makes a convincing yet likable rascal of Boy Willie and has great chemistry with primary acting partner Yaegel T. Welch, who gives a disarming performance as Lymon. G. Valmont Thomas uses every ounce of his years of experience in musical theatre to nearly steal the show as blowhard Wining Boy, yet never takes the character into overly broad strokes. Erika LaVonn etches a fine portrait of Berniece, a still-grieving widow yearning to rejoin the human race and fiercely protective of her heritage. LaVonn plays well in Berniece's flirtatious moments with both Welch's Lymon, and Ken Robinson's awkward but warm-natured Avery. Allison Strickland scores chuckles as Grace, a flashy good-time gal in a red dress who catches both Boy Willie and Lymon's eyes, and Shiann Welch is earnest and natural in the small role of Maretha.
Williams Bloodgood's scenic design is meticulous in its evocation of the era and class of the family residing in the house and is well served by Geoff Korf's expert lighting design. Helen Q. Huang's costumes, especially the flashy silk suit Wining Boy pawns off on Lymon, are just right, and composer Michael G. Keck has supplied some fitting music for the occasion.
Deeply human and humane, The Piano Lesson may be my favorite of Wilson's plays, and it is grand to see it revived with such distinction.
The Piano Lesson runs through February 8, 2015, at Seattle Repertory Theatre in Seattle Center. For more information: www.seattlerep.org.
- David Edward Hughes