Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

The Piano Lesson
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Clifton Duncan and Galen Ryan Kane
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
The essence of the late playwright August Wilson comes to life through a very strong production of one his many enduring plays, The Piano Lesson, continuing at Hartford Stage through November 13th. The playwright composed a work set in each decade of the 20th century. This one was first produced at Yale Rep in 1987 and the current revival utilizes the very same piano that appeared in the New Haven rendering. Jade King Carroll, directing, coordinates an exemplary cast. The fine production elements, too, are of huge benefit.

We are in Pittsburgh in 1936 and Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) senses a major opportunity for a financial score in his life. He will not bypass the moment. Coming north from Mississippi, he intends to sell the family heirloom piano. With the money, Boy Willie will purchase a piece of land, a place where elder members of his family once toiled as slaves. Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson) is his sister, and she cares for the beloved piano. She is a widow and lives in the house with her uncle, Doaker (Roscoe Orman).

Boy Willie arrives with a truckload of watermelons he intends to sell and utilize as another income source. His friend Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) accompanied Boy Willie on the trip from the south to Pennsylvania. Boy Willie figures that the combined cash he takes in from the melons and the sale of the piano will allow him to buy the parcel he desires back in Mississippi. Berniece, who treasures the instrument, will not let it leave the home. She has not played it since her mother passed away and she finds it symbolic even if of pain. Boy Willie feels it will emancipate him.

On the beautiful instrument are engravings which tell stories. Berniece's mother tended to it and her great-grandfather was the man who made the carvings for the instrument's facing.

The Piano Lesson is a soulful, poignant tug of war, a struggle of souls.

Berniece is courted by a preacher named Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley) and, later, she is emotionally pulled toward Lymon. As a young mother, she is protective of her 11-year-old daughter Maretha (Elise Taylor). The second act also features Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks). He is a friend of everyone and a piano player. An extrovert, he manages to sell Lymon a doozy of a suit and ill-fitting shoes. Of all the male characters, Lymon seems genuine in his wish for security—and love.

Duncan as Boy Willie is the audacious one, the man who garners attention, an appealing go-getter. He speaks quickly, heatedly about his aspiration, and he will not be dissuaded. His self-proclaimed mission, he feels, is out there and he wants to take full advantage of it.

Alexis Distler's open, inviting set breathes life into this house through two tiers, a staircase, and the rooms where the action occurs. Toni-Leslie James's wardrobe choices are period perfect and York Kennedy's lighting is mostly and appropriately dim. The director has asked her father, composer Baikida Carroll, to provide music—which is suitably lovely. Speaking of music, the large Hartford Stage performance area, as if infused with energy, is never more beckoning than those times a few of the men sing a couple of tunes. Their dance footwork, too, is nifty. Jade King Carroll knowingly directs as cast members effectively navigate the three-hour Wilson journey.

There is a deficiency early during the first act when Doaker (and actor Orman stammers a bit) is conversing while seated. His positioning, with back to a significant segment of the audience, does not permit him to be fully audible. Too much of the dialogue is not decipherable.

August Wilson was not yet born in 1936. That did not prevent him from composing a reverberant script which speaks mightily of that particular time and place. Fortunate enough to have spent two mornings with him as his plays were then in preparation for world premieres in New Haven, I found him, through lengthy conversations, to have a keen, willing, loving ear for people's times, lives, predicaments and relationships. The Hartford Stage production channels this playwright, a giant of his era. He is perspicacious, compassionate, direct, and even comic. The new production enables us, once again, to experience all.

The Piano Lesson continues at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut through November 13th, 2016. For tickets, call (860) 527-5151 or visit

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