Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
But one great performance shines throughand not just because a particular actor avoids being swallowed up in Hansol Jung's white-knuckle shocker. Darrious Varner rides the tidal wave of drama here in two very different roles. He is transformed, with naturalism and believability, as a Ugandan child soldier and later as a young gay man who's survived the millennial "kill the gays" movement in the central African nation (immediately west of Kenya), which was partly fueled by the financial and spiritual support of American evangelical missionaries. It's a plum set of dual roles and Mr. Varner far exceeds expectations.
It would be a dazzling opportunity for any actor, to play both 13 year-old Pika and later the more age-appropriate Francis (Mr. Varner is 25). And here, smudges of dark make-up entirely change the shape of the actor's head. But something fatal seems to cleave through his heart in act one, as the child soldier, and then, as the willowy Francis (in act two), his spine slowly turns to iron as things get rough all over again. Playwright Jung seems to have put both characters in the "sweet spot" of each act, and we never lose sight of either one, as explosive events cast a shadow over everything else.
The American missionaries are off-stage, as their lesbian daughter plots a very unofficial, very secret gay marriage on the altar of their Christian outpost. The always impressive Frankie Ferrari plays Chris, the missionaries' daughter, creating an earnest air of young love in her parents' little church in the northern Ugandan countryside.
Jazmine Wade does well as two other characters, the Ugandan girl in love with Chris and, 14 years later (after intermission), as a preacher's wife. In act two, she exhibits a simple, confident manner and an elegant accent. Reginald Pierre is immediate and intimate in two very different roles: a young soldier in act one, seeking compromise with Pika; and later as a young preacher, earnestly struggling to confront his country's violent past, and his surprising role in it.
The tension rises very briskly in act one, as a small 1990s -ra cassette recorder fills up with incriminating evidence of the secret gay wedding, and the girls' touching ceremony ends in chaos. Some of the lives are gradually reassembled in act two, until Uganda's old crisis is reborn. That's when 14 years of healing and secrets face sudden collapse.
Cardboard Piano, through April 15, 2018, at West End Players Guild, Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd. (a block north of Delmar), St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.westendplayers.org.