Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Piano Lesson
Also see Richard's review of Dogfight
Most theater audiences tend to be very white, so (it somehow follows) that the shows they see are written by white authors, about white people, with mostly white actors on stage... telling "our" tales. And then the critic must strut and fret for a page and a half about whether or not the whole thing succeeded in making us white people recognize ourselves in some new light or not. It may not be very healthy.
So it's quite refreshing when a rich, beautifully done show like this comes along, with a different view of things.
Nada Vaughn directs August Wilson's famous story of a family heirloom (an upright piano). And, as the beautiful carvings on the piano suggest, the whole epic that emerges is not just about who owns the piano, but who owns the family's difficult history too.
And, thanks to the direction and the revelatory performances on stage, we're also forced to ask: does the family own the piano (and its legacy), or does the piano own them?
Jeremy Thomas is dynamic and defiant as the man who comes to sell his grandparents' spinet, if he can just get it away from his sister Berniece (the thoughtful and formidably certain Talichia Noah). The great instrument had already changed hands (twice) with the southern white farmers who used to rule over their grandparents, before either character was born, all of which adds terrible dimensions to the question of ownership. So Mr. Thomas (as Boy Willie), along with Ronnie Lee Banks (as Lymon Jackson), comes up to Pittsburgh, hoping to use the proceeds from the sale of the heirloom to buy a portion of the land his family once worked.
Playwright Wilson lays out an array of plot points and characters in a brisk and efficient manner, and several fascinating characters come into the mix, in this painful matter of estate. (And since theater audiences often tend to be older, the whole story becomes universal, dealing with what their parents managed to leave behind.)
Archie Coleman is Doaker, who shares a house with Ms. Noah's Berniece, and he holds much of the story together simply through his enduring presence; Ryan Adolph is quietly dazzling as a would-be preacher, who must rid the house of a ghost when all the elements of the story swirl together. And Darrious Varner is reassuringly smooth as a musician down on his luck.
Nearly every one of the men takes a turn at solving the family dispute, with Mr. Banks being especially touching in a proposal of marriage, late in the show. And Mr. Adolph is captivating in his ebullient work of the spirit. Jeremy Thomas puts the political problems of the black man on the table in a compelling monologue, too, becoming a Hamlet of the rural poor. And long before that, he, Mr. Coleman, and Mr. Banks engage in a powerful chanting song in act one, to put us completely under their spell.
But it's only when Berniece realizes the solution to the family's problem is (like the piano itself) a matter of legacy that everything becomes magical all at once. Like a lot of family-centric plays, you can debate whether or not anything was really settled in the end. Still, the play presents a world very much like our own, though wonderfully (and sometimes starkly) different.
Winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Piano Lesson continues through October 25th, 2015, at 6501 Clayton Road (63117). For more information visit www.placeseveryone.org.