'Piano' has stories to tell

May 14, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

The actors burst into song on several occasions in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," but music plays a more integral role in this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which opened at the Mechanic Theatre last night.

In a play with a subplot about ghosts and the supernatural, music is the true spirit of the piece. Like the ornately carved heirloom piano of the title, music serves as a link tying memories of the past to the present and assuring that they will not be forgotten in the future.

On a more obvious level, music permeates Wilson's poetic-sounding dialogue, particularly as spoken by lead actor Isiah Whitlock Jr., who makes it resonate like a fast-paced rhythmic chant.

However, like most of Wilson's plays, "The Piano Lesson" is an ensemble piece. Although Fox Broadcasting's "Roc" raided much of the original Broadway cast -- starting with Baltimore native Charles S. Dutton -- the touring cast is just as tightly knit, once again under the direction of Lloyd Richards.

Ensemble work is especially important here since most of the actors in "The Piano Lesson" portray members of the same family -- descendants of slaves who were traded for the piano.

The play is set in Pittsburgh in 1936, where the piano is in the possession of Berneice, a widow who refuses to play it and just as adamantly refuses to sell it. This becomes an issue when her brother, Boy Willie (Whitlock), comes up from the South claiming he needs the money to buy the land on which their ancestors were slaves.

Much of the ensuing action takes the form of a tug-of-war in which the proper use of a legacy serves as the rope. Wilson is a born storyteller, and most of these characters have stories to tell. Significantly, however, Berneice resists -- almost to the point of denial -- the story behind the piano.

At the opposite extreme from Whitlock's manic portrayal, Starletta DuPois brings a quiet intensity to Berneice. A similar disparity is reflected in the portrayals of their two uncles. As a high-living former piano man, Danny Robinson Clark is as slick as the shine on his two-tone shoes. In contrast, Ed Bernard imbues his brother, a 27-year railroad veteran, with a nature as steadfast as the stern expression on his face.

The ending of "The Piano Lesson" was reworked during its various pre-Broadway productions at theaters including the Kennedy Center. Although the piano's fate is now definitively settled, the supernatural element still predominates. There is precedent for this in Wilson's other work, as well as in the African tradition underlying his entire decade-by-decade play cycle, whose latest entry is the Tony Award nominee, "Two Trains Running." Regrettably, however, the direction of "Piano Lesson's" climactic scene continues to tilt it toward the ridiculous instead of the spiritual.

Still, Wilson is singing an important and memorable song in "The Piano Lesson" -- a hymn to cultural heritage -- and this cast makes it ring out with conviction and zeal.

"The Piano Lesson" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through June 7; call (401) 625-1400.

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