If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

Wilson’s “Piano Lesson” in Revival at Hartford Stage

The great American playwright August Wilson left us a legacy with his ten-play cycle chronicling a decade-by-decade journey of the African-American experience. The play list includes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, “Two Trains Running” and “Fences” (coming to the screen with Denzel Washington later this year). His Pulitzer Prize winning “The Piano Lesson”, one of the best of the ten, is currently enjoying a revival at Hartford Stage. This is a solid rendering of arguably Mr. Wilson’s most popular play.

Set in an expansive family home in Pittsburgh 1936, “The Piano Lesson” focuses on the conflict between siblings Boy Willie (a wonderful Clifton Duncan) and Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson) who have very different plans for the family piano. The piano resides in the home Berniece shares with their Uncle Doaker (Roscoe Ormon). Boy Willie is a southern sharecropper visiting the family with his friend Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) with plans to sell the piano to buy land where his ancestors used to toil as slaves. Berniece values the piano which has been meticulously carved and charts the history of their family’s enslavement. As in most of Wilson’s works, several themes emerge over the drama’s running time of nearly three hours. Dreams are both literal and figurative in a Wilson drama. His use of magical realism in “The Piano Lesson” is a recurring motif as “Sutter’s Ghost”, the spirit of the man who owned Berniece and Boy Willie’s ancestors during the time of slavery, is an unseen but very important presence here.

On opening night there was a definite struggling with lines on the part of Mr. Orman that seemed to throw off the rhythm of several scenes. The role of Doaker is a crucial one no more so than when he explains the history of the family piano in a monologue that, at my performance, was shaky at best. Still, the rest of the acting company cannot be faulted. Duncan is a powerhouse as the ambitious Boy Willie commanding every scene he’s in and Robinson, as an embittered single mother trying to keep it all together, has moments of raw eloquence. Kane gives a tender, bittersweet performance as the lonely Lymon searching for a new life (and possibly love) in Pittsburgh. His scene with Robinson, where they come close to confronting their feelings for each other, is one of the play’s very best. In other roles there are strong contributions from Daniel Morgan Shelley, Cleavant Derricks and Toccarra Cash.

Director Jade King Carroll, who previously helmed Hartford Stage’s production of “Having Our Say” last season, brings a fine sense of time and place to the proceedings but she really hasn’t prepared her audience enough in act one for the mystical elements that are a key element of the play’s second half. She directs here with a leisurely pace up and until a baffling climax which is so rushed and confused that audience members around me were heard to say, “Wait, what?” It could all be helped by having the actors just take a few more beats during those important final moments.

Although the setting seems more massive than it needs to be (why are people sleeping on the sofa when it looks like there could be four bedrooms upstairs?), scenic designer Alexis Distler has done exemplary work. I also admired York Kennedy’s dappled, lovely lighting which finds poetry and, yes, magic in many scenes. It is, perhaps, not a definitive production, but one should never pass up the opportunity to see any of the works of the late, great August Wilson. And you’ll soon have another opportunity: Yale Repertory is producing Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” later this month.

“The Piano Lesson” continues at Hartford Stage through November 13. For further information call the theatre box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org     

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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