Keyboard is Instrument of Change in The Piano Lesson
By Amy J. Barry
An elaborately carved antique piano sits stage right throughout the production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. And yet the piano is really the centerpiece of the play, around which all the action revolves, representing something very different and meaningful to each of the characters.
The fourth of six plays in Wilson’s 10-play cycle exploring the experience of 20th-century African Americans, The Piano Lesson premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre 24 years ago, and returns under the direction of Liesl Tommy, who made her debut at Yale Rep last season with Eclipsed.
A family drama/ensemble piece that takes place in Pittsburgh in 1936, the production features a number of exceptional performances punctuated by moving original gospel/blues numbers with lyrics by Wilson and music by Eisa Davis, who is also musical director and plays the role of Berniece.
Yet, despite its strengths, there is no getting around the fact that this play is unnecessarily long and tends to ramble at three hours plus a 15-minute intermission. The message could be delivered with even more punch, with less.
The action takes place in a two-story urban home decorated with worn Victorian-era furniture. Blown up black-and-white photographs of the city serve as the backdrop in Dede Ayite’s realistic set.
We are quickly immersed in a frenetic four-way conversation following the arrival of Boy Willie (Leroy McClain) and his sidekick Lymon (Charles Hudson, III) at the home of Boy Willie’s sister Berniece that she shares with her uncle Doaker (Keith Randolph Smith), a gentle giant of a guy whose role is peacemaker in the volatile family.
Boy Willie has come up from the south with Lyman, carting a truck full of watermelons to sell to the city folks, intent on also selling the prized piano, and splitting the proceeds with his sister.
This is his ticket to purchase 100 acres of land in Mississippi that his family once worked as slaves. The problem is, Bernice—still in mourning for her husband Crawley who died three years earlier—will not budge when it comes to selling the piano, which is shrouded in mystery and family ghosts; a signature theme in Wilson’s plays.
McClain’s acting skills shine as Boy Willie— the most complex and interesting character in the play. Swaggering, threatening, tossing off the n-word—he is also a pragmatist, passionate about his dreams, loving and protective of his young niece Maretha (Malenky Welsh), Berniece’s daughter.
Also introduced in Act I is the full-of-bull, piano playing Wining Boy (Charles Weldon)—another uncle—who only shows up when he’s down on his luck and in contrast, the deadpan, earnest Avery (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), who is courting Berniece, and has recently found his calling as a preacher.
The second act is more focused than the first with several poignant and funny interchanges in which we get to know the family on a deeper level, beyond the banter.
In a delightful scene, Weldon, as Wining Boy, saunters in with an apricot silk suit he bought for on the cheap, and continues his wheeling and dealing, selling it to Lyman at a profit, along with a pair of too tight shoes, and free advice on attracting the ladies.
A perfectly captured, understated moment occurs after Lymon returns from a night on the town and runs into Berniece, who is angry, as usual, at Boy Willie—this time for bringing a girl home to have sex in her living room.
Hudson is disarming and genuine as Lyman, the only one who can get the rigid Berniece to let down her guard. In an unrequited love scene, Lyman follows Berniece halfway up the long staircase where they finally embrace only to go back down the stairs to engage in what must be the most seductive bed making scene in the history of the theater, as she slowly spreads out sheets and blankets—for one—on the couch.
Berniece and Boy Willie ultimately go head-to-head over the piano—while he’s tying the ropes to haul it away, she’s untying them…ghosts wreak havoc in the upstairs bedroom…and the fate of the piano? Well, that’s not for me to give away.
Despite the vastness of plots, subplots, and live and dead characters populating the stage, The Piano Lesson is really about a simple truth. We become trapped in our own perceptions, even while determined to find a way out. Eventually most of us muster the courage to face our demons, realizing in the end, regardless of our differences, that blood is thicker than water.
The Piano Lesson is at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven, through Feb. 19. Call the box office at 203-432-1234 or online www.yalerep.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Feb. 17 2011 and online at Zip06.com.