Monday, October 24, 2016

Review of "The Piano Lesson"

The Piano Lesson, one of the ten plays August Wilson wrote that chronicles African-American life in the twentieth century, is receiving an impressive production at Hartford Stage.  Set in Pittsburgh in the 1930’s, the story can be seen as a straightforward domestic drama about a brother and sister arguing over the fate of a prized heirloom piano.  But Wilson paints in broad strokes so the sibling struggle is more the catalyst for an examination of life during this timeframe.  He touches on The Great Migration north by African-Americans, their struggles in Pittsburgh, the lack of acceptance between northern and southern brethren, racial intolerance and despair.  For this rendering, composer Baikida Carroll has added music and songs that evoke the mood and times, incorporating gospel, blues, and work songs into the fabric of the play.

Clifton Duncan as Boy Willie.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The basic thrust of the story involves the desire of Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan), a young man from the south, who comes up north with the goal of selling his sister Berniece’s (Christina Acosta Robinson) prized, family piano.  This set-up unleashes an abundance of conflicting emotions within the extended family that includes Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane), Boy Willie’s friend; Doaker (Roscoe Orman), the uncle who’s house Berniece and her daughter Maretha (Elise Taylor) live in; Doaker’s brother Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) an over-the-hill entertainer and boozer in from Kansas City; and Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley), a would-be preacher who has been persistently wooing Berniece to become his wife.  The household conflict serves as a springboard for issues confronting African-Americans during this period. 

The multi-level saga pulsates with anger, determination, and wistfulness.  Wilson has developed richly defined characters, all striving for a better existence.  They are in flux and undergoing seismic changes.  He subtly, but pointedly, contrasts the northern and southern African-American lifestyles and desires.  The playwright’s use of ghostly imagery is an effective mechanism in exploring and exorcising age-old beliefs and memories.
Christina Acosta Robinson and Cleavant Derricks.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The first-rate cast is led by Clifton Duncan as Willie Boy.  He is boisterous, obstinate, and single-minded in the pursuit of his dream of owning his own farm.  He is the nexus in which all the other characters revolve around.  Christina Acosta Robinson as Berniece is stoic and resolute in her desire to better the lives of herself and daughter.  On the surface she appears unfeeling and stringent, but underneath churns a woman seeking real love and passion.    Galen Ryan Kane, as Willie Boy’s friend Lymon, yearns to break from his southern heritage to begin anew up north.  The actor brings a laid back and pensive quality to his role, which finely balances with the more strongly expressive characters.  Roscoe Orman’s Doaker is the most sensible member of the household.  He is contemplative and mannered, but not so detached to back down from a good time.  Cleavant Derricks’ Wining Boy provides good-natured comic relief flecked with regret and unrealized ambitions.  Rounding out the splendid cast is Daniel Morgan Shelley as Avery, Elise Taylor as the young daughter Maretha, and Toccarra Cash as Grace. 
Galen Ryan Kane in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Director Jade King Carroll skillfully creates an environment that comes across as natural and unforced.  Scenes seamlessly flow together.  She injects intelligent and compelling flourishes into scenes such as the floor stomping railroad work song.  While heartache and humor are at the play’s core she also demonstrates a deft touch with tender moments as with the intimate scene between Berniece and Lymon.  The director artfully controls the tempo of the show, building the tension of the production to a feverish pitch.  The play’s resolution, however, does come a bit too quickly and seems rushed. 

The scenic design, a simple, unadorned ground floor living room and second floor landing, by Alexis Distler quietly and modestly evokes the Pittsburgh Hill District where the action of the play takes place.

The Piano Lesson, a winning and absorbing drama, playing at Hartford Stage through November 13th.

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