A riveting "Piano Lesson”

April 18, 2005, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 19 years, 3 months ago

Play disturbs and enlightens

I was somewhat taken aback when, in a short speech after the opening performance of her production of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," director Saret Scott opined that the middle-aged Wilson is already one of the great American playwrights. But after seeing "The Piano Lesson," I can find little grounds on which to disagree with her.

Indeed, I can't think of anything that "Long Day's Journey into Night" or "The Crucible" has that "The Piano Lesson" or "Fences" doesn't. If anything, the latter two are better, owing to their occasional moments of comic relief. And although his masterpiece "The Piano Lesson" is only 15 years old (it won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for drama), it might not be too early to place Wilson alongside the Tennessee Williamses and Arthur Millers of the world.

The play begins with the return of Boy Willie to his uncle's home in 1930s Pittsburgh, where he plans to sell his family's piano in order to purchase a few acres of farmland. However, his sister Bernice stands firmly against him, contending that their father died trying to steal the piano from his slave master. There are numerous subplots that occur both in the past and present, and the play's focus darts from the supernatural to the historical burden of slavery. But the clash between Willie's view of the piano as a symbol of the future and Bernice's view of it as a symbol of the past is undoubtedly the play's central conflict.

It is a story simple enough to remain allegorical. Like the massive portrait of the nameless Mr. Wingfield in Williams's "The Glass Menagerie," the piano represents an absent father figure; like the titular subject of Chekov's "The Cherry Orchard," it is a symbol of freedom from a legacy of suppression, and of the immovable weight of history. Tragicomic, figurative and provocative, this is a play of incredible depth and complexity.

While the play itself is worth the trip downtown, those concerned with things other than its literary merit will not be disappointed. The production boasts an excellent all-black cast, and Frederick Stroather is particularly good as a freeloading former musician. Kate Edmund's set is sparse but by no means minimalist, and Scott's direction captures the play's subtle tension. "The Piano Lesson" is a memory play, and like a Greek tragedy, its most pivotal events take place either offstage or in the distant past. Under Scott's direction, the play remains fluent and interesting, even through lengthy monologues and flashbacks that would usually provide a formidable test to most viewers' patience.

Granted, metaphors and prolonged flashbacks probably won't entice the majority of high-school students. But one of the great things about drama is its ability to bring metaphor to life and to make the figurative as riveting and convincing as any fight sequence or chase scene in a movie. This play, both for Scott's production and Wilson's text, is a case in point and well worth a look.

"The Piano Lesson" (three hours) is playing through May 15 at the Arena Stage's Fichandler Theatre.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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