Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


The magic of the Performance Network production of The Piano Lesson, as directed by Tim Rhoze, lies in realism. Spinning playwright August Wilson’s captivating three-hour journey into the nature of family, inheritance, legacy, aspiration, duty, and the paranormal into a deceptively innocuous portrait of a Depression-era African-American family is an admirable feat, one that pays off with dividends in this deep and touching drama.

Lisa Lauren Smith is protagonist Berniece, a headstrong mother and widow who keeps the story of her ancestry close to her heart; in fact, it’s usually tightly locked therein. She works full-time, raises daughter Maretha (a role shared by 10-year-old Lexa Bauer and 13-year-old Kayla Lumpkin), essentially runs the house belonging to her uncle Doaker (James Cowans), a retired railroad man, and — despite the play’s 1936 setting and the pressure for women to be married — politely rejects the businesslike proposals of smitten future preacher Avery (Lynch Travis). Her cherished family history is manifest in the troubled form of the piano passed down from her parents, covered with carvings made by her great-grandfather when he was a slave. Berniece’s connection to the piano is colored both by the price at which it was obtained and by the particulars of her late mother’s attachment to it, but despite her unwillingness to play the instrument, she simply cannot let it go; throughout the production, Smith’s stern conviction and charged emotions resonate with emphatic force.

Into this environment gravitate other family members and friends, most notably Boy Willie (Brian Marable), a motormouth schemer whose own idea of legacy concerns land and its associated security and permanence; as co-inheritor of the piano, he covets its monetary rather than its sentimental value. Accompanying him to Pittsburgh from the family’s original Southern home is Lymon (Sean Rodriguez), weary of farming and ready to make his mark in a big city full of beautiful women. Also passing through is Wining Boy (Nelson Jones), Doaker’s brother and Berniece and Boy Willie’s other uncle, a musician whose talent and fleeting fame are outshone by his smooth fleecing of gullible Lymon. Although the piano always hovers at the forefront of the plot, Wilson lends time and depth to each character’s intertwining story; scenic designer Monika Essen makes ample room for the myriad characters in the open, detailed first-floor setting of living room and kitchen. Furthermore, Andrew Hungerford’s lighting design complements and enhances the ample and varied lamplight; together with Charlie Sutherland’s cleanly integrated properties and Essen’s under- and overstated costume design, the production elements give the feeling of a real household that is only reinforced by Rhoze’s easy staging.

To concisely describe the tone of the production is impossible, because it’s so many things at once. This play is generously, uproariously funny, hypnotically intense, stubbornly unresolvable, tentatively romantic, and even shockingly otherworldly: the recent suspicious death of former slaveholder Sutter may have sent his spirit after the very piano (and family) that was originally his. To the credit of Rhoze and the cast, every one of these moods feels appropriate and natural in the moment, and the transitions are imperceptible. Even the mundane tasks of everyday life, like heating water or brushing a daughter’s hair, readily earn attention as a necessary part of the whole. Performances are airtight across the board: Marable gives honest motivation and credence to a character with dollar signs in his eyes; against the indignant Smith, he plays brotherly notes to a tee and lets her sparks fly. Travis turns in a hilarious performance as Avery, earnest but transparently looking out for his own gain, frequently the eager butt of spoken and unspoken jokes. Lymon is given infinite hope in Rodriguez’s contagious optimism; his brief, late turn with Diviin Huff as love interest Grace shows enduring tenderness. Cowans and Jones interact splendidly as brothers and elders, bringing exposition and dimension to the stories they touch; young Maretha, a symbol of the next generation, is an asset to the family dynamic.

A credit to its deservedly lauded author, this production carefully establishes a seemingly binary issue and gets closer and closer to discern the very finest details of the contributing factors that make it as complex as a real family conflict. It takes time to do justice to the enormous story of The Piano Lesson, but viewers ready to invest attention and reflection will be blown away by the breadth and depth of the experience.


Post a Comment