The Piano Lesson

By August Wilson
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Featuring Roslyn Ruff, Brandon J. Dirden, James A Williams
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
November 18, 2012 (opening) — January 13, 2013
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 21, 2012

(L-R) Chuck Cooper, Jason Dirden, Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff. Image by Joan Marcus.
(L-R) Chuck Cooper, Jason Dirden, Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff. Image by Joan Marcus.

A production extension into January 2013 of this magical, earthbound, yet soaring spiritual revival helps me to feel justified in posting a long-delayed review.  This Signature ensemble helmed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, dressed by Karen Perry, in fragments of a realistic home with secrets built by Michael Carnahan makes realistic poetry out of August Wilson‘s Piano Lesson. This play’s world is built in the Pittsburgh Hill district geography Wilson’s stories occupy — mid 1930s for this chapter. Family secrets, family legacies, lurking jealousies, protection of forefathers, power in inanimate objects. The subtle aural psychic magic of this world, the delicate tight rope walk to build a story that we in our 21st century audience seats can feel and believe, is deftly delivered.

All the action of the play takes place in the Hill District home Doaker Charles (James A. Williams) shares with his niece Berniece (Roslyn Ruff) and her young daughter Maretha (Alexis Holt), representing generations into the past and into the future. A family heirloom piano sits stage right, prominent and ornately carved, occasionally played and continually referenced. The Charles household is a resting point for this family legacy as well as for several characters who find their way in and out of the house — Doaker’s older brother Wining Boy (Chuck Cooper) who has a fraught history of piano playing as career and lifestyle; Avery (Eric Lenox Abrams) who courts the young widow and mother Bernice; and Berniece’s brother Boy Willie (Brand J. Dirden) and his pal Lymon (Jason Dirden) who have arrived from down South for a visit and perhaps more. Willie wants to sell it to invest in yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes while Berniece feels the legacy of the piano, carved with the stories of ancestors.  The action of the play focuses on who has rights to the piano, who will protect their family legacy, who feels the weight and the joy of heritage.

The dance is delicate, the dynamics nuanced, the poetry lovely, the balance profound.  Director and playwright and actors and designers (including lighting by Rui Rita and sound by David Van Tieghem) have created reality and magic and theatre wonders at Signature.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 20, 2012)

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