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Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

The Piano Lesson
McCarter Theatre Center
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of 9 to 5

Stephen Tyrone Williams, Frances Brown, Miriam A. Hyman, and John Earl Jelks
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Shortly before his death at the age of sixty, August Wilson (1945-2005) completed his mammoth, breathtaking Century Cycle of plays. As a life's work, few projects reach this level of ambition: Wilson endeavored to chronicle the African-American experience in his hometown of Pittsburgh in every decade of the twentieth century. The eleven plays he wrote are rich with poetry and history, often blending kitchen-sink realism with a hearty dose of spiritualism and supernaturalism. Rarely is this more evident than in The Piano Lesson, the cycle's 1930s entry, which won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize, and which McCarter Theatre in Princeton is currently reviving through February 7.

Though set in Pittsburgh's Hill District—where Wilson grew up and most of his plays take place—The Piano Lesson is heavily influenced by the impact of southern life. Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) drives from Mississippi to Pennsylvania to sell a crop of watermelons with his friend Lymon (David Pegram) in the hopes of earning enough money to buy the farm on which his ancestors toiled as slaves. He puts up at the home of his uncle Doaker (Wilson veteran John Earl Jelks), where his sister Berniece (Miriam A. Hyman) also lives. They immediately clash over a family heirloom in Berniece's possession: a piano carved with the legends of their grandparents and great-grandparents.

In an interesting reversal, Berniece, the city woman, represents a dogged loyalty to the past, whereas the intrepid Boy Willie embodies the growing number of African Americans who tried to make their mark in the "new" south. Berniece equates the loss of the piano with spiritual ruin; bearing this out, any attempt to move the instrument is met with flickering lights and shaking furniture. As much as Boy Willie tries to ignore the mounting evidence, it quickly becomes clear to the audience that something, or someone, wants the piano to stay in the family.

This hardly represents Wilson's most extreme juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary—that would probably be Aunt Ester, the 285-year-old protagonist of Gem of the Ocean. And while there is certainly humor in The Piano Lesson—just as there is situational humor to be found in his other masterpieces, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone—one would not call it a comedy. Yet Jade King Carroll's odd production appears to privilege this aspect of the production, with the characters feeling oddly one-dimensional and the supernatural elements eliciting more laughs than chills.

It doesn't help that neither Williams nor Hyman seem particularly well cast or able to do the heavy lifting Wilson requires. His dialogue is poetry; it needs a certain style to make it sing. Williams (a late addition to the cast, replacing Marcus Callender in rehearsals) rushes through his lines at breakneck pace, never connecting with Boy Willie's desire to forge his own future. Hyman has the unenviable task of singlehandedly communicating the female experience (a second woman character, played nicely by Shannon Janee Antalan, is inconsequential to the plot); rage is a key element to that experience. It also seems to be the only element Hyman is able to put across in her strident performance. There is plenty of shouting with little subtlety.

Jelks is terrific as the firm but kind Doaker. At the performance I attended, he appeared to lose his place several times during his character's long speech extolling the history of the family piano, but he corrected himself like a pro. Similarly, the role of Wining Boy—Doaker's brother, and himself a small-time musician—is made to steal the show, which is exactly what Cleavant Derricks does. However, Wining Boy is also meant to be the comic relief; having a production where the comedic aspects are so highly pitched diminishes the character's purpose to a degree.

Pegram makes little impression as Lymon; Owiso Odera does better as Avery, an aspiring preacher who longs to marry Berniece. Eleven-year-old Plainsboro native Frances Brown is winning in the small role of Maretha, Berniece's daughter. And Wilson's gorgeous gifts are never not evident. I just wish that they were better served.

The Piano Lesson continues through Sunday, February 7, 2016, at McCarter Theatre Center's Berlind Theatre (91 University Place in Princeton). Tickets ($25-94.50) can be purchased online at, by phone (609-258-2787), or in person at the box office (Monday-Saturday, 10-6 [8pm on performance days]; Sunday, 11-6).

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