`Piano' is sure to strike a chord

Review: In this well-acted production of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning `The Piano Lesson,' the piano is center stage.

May 24, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Although there's a curtain-waving, music-playing, chill-inducing ghost in "The Piano Lesson," playwright August Wilson is writing about deeper terrors in this 1930s installment of his decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th-cen- tury African-American life.

He's writing about the terror that can result from denying your past, and the terror of familial dissension.

Exorcising these terrors takes more than a Bible and holy water, as Wilson's characters discover. It takes the will and courage to change and to embrace where you've been and where you're going.

These themes come through with powerful intensity in director Reggie Montgomery's solidly acted production at Center Stage, a production that is sure to touch a chord with audiences.

Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, the action focuses on a dispute between Berniece, a widowed mother, and Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, who arrives unexpectedly from Mississippi. From the start, this brother and sister couldn't be more different.

Pounding on the door at 5 in the morning, Joseph Edward's Boy Willie is as irrepressible and garrulous as a child. He bolts up the stairs as if he's just been let out of a starting gate, and when he doesn't get his way, he pouts.

Later on, those pouts are replaced with bursts of anger.

"You can't talk to Boy Willie," says Berniece, who barely tries to talk to him - except to repeatedly tell him to leave. As played by Fanni Green, Berniece appears as sensible and stolid as her brother is volatile. While he nearly spins with perpetual motion, she's as rooted as a tree.

The issue that has them at loggerheads concerns an heirloom, a piano that once belonged to the Sutter family; Berniece and Boy Willie's ancestors were slaves on the Sutter plantation. Their great-grandfather, a woodcarver, decorated the piano with African-style carvings of their family history, and their father was killed after stealing the instrument.

Now the last Sutter on the plantation has died, and Boy Willie has a chance to buy the land. To raise money, he plans to sell the piano, which occupies a prominent position at the foot of the stairs in the house where Berniece lives with her daughter and uncle. Berniece no longer plays the instrument, but she has no intention of letting it leave her house - even though that house now appears to be haunted by Sutter's ghost, who occasionally tinkles the ivories.

The central placement of the piano is one of the most effective features of designer Donald Eastman's period set; unlike the Broadway set, which situated the piano on one side, Eastman's set never lets the audience forget the crucial role this instrument plays.

It's not incidental that Wilson made this heirloom a musical instrument, instead of, say, a mere piece of furniture. Music is a major element in Wilson's work, and it's also a defining trait in his writing style, in which characters frequently launch into aria-like speeches. These arias are beautifully delivered at Center Stage.

There's the tale of the piano's history, told in measured tones by Terry Alexander as the protagonists' slow-and-steady railroad worker uncle, Doaker. There's Berniece's suitor's account of how he got the calling to become a preacher, delivered with evangelical fervor by Alex Morris. There's the analysis of what Lymon (Boy Willie's friend) looks for in a woman, touchingly explained to Berniece by Harvey Gardner Moore, in an impressive professional debut.

And there are discourses on everything from romance to confronting ghosts, told with a wink and a smile by Charles Weldon as Doaker's rakish brother, Wining Boy.

Mysticism and/or spirits figure into most of Wilson's plays, although the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Piano Lesson" is the only out-and-out ghost story. Ghosts are tricky to portray without eliciting laughter, and some of that surfaced at the performance I attended. Part of the problem may lie in the writing of this melodramatic scene, but it is exacerbated by the staging. The climactic, knock-down, drag-out battle between real and spiritual characters is a little too dragged out.

Director Montgomery is more successful with a bit of staging at the very end of the play. By then, the forces that nearly tore Berniece and Boy Willie apart have suddenly brought them together. Montgomery reinforces their restored relationship with a few warm parting gestures. This display of affection is a seemingly small choice, but it's a significant one, and it's indicative of the strength of a production that wraps up a notably strong Center Stage season.

`The Piano Lesson'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through June 24


Call: 410-332-0033

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