Cutting the Chords

A family's ties to its difficult past make The Piano Lesson a hard one.

The Piano Lesson Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through February 27, 216-795-7000
Lymon is thrilled with the babe-magnet suit he buys - from Wining Boy.
Lymon is thrilled with the babe-magnet suit he buys from Wining Boy.
Chances are, you'd prefer that certain parts of your family history disappear forever. Some memories are frivolous, of course, and pretty easy to delete from memory -- Dad teaching your first date how to make armpit farts, for example. But there are other legacies handed down from one generation to the next that defy glib resolution.

This issue of historical perspective is especially troubling for African American families, most of whom share a heritage of slavery. Should black people hold onto --and thereby try to validate -- the agony of the slavery their ancestors endured, or should they move beyond that tragic past and focus on the future? It's a damn good question and a splendid central theme for a play. In August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson, now at the Play House, this conundrum is addressed on several levels, and thanks to a fabulously engaging cast, it offers many telling moments. Still, due to an overlong and frequently repetitive script and some curious staging decisions, this production never fully succeeds.

As part of playwright Wilson's decade-by-decade exploration of the African American experience in the 20th century, The Piano Lesson looks at life in the post-Depression 1930s in the urban Hill District of Pittsburgh. That's where a family that migrated from the South has established a residence, with railroad porter Doaker offering a home to his niece Berniece (Linda Powell) and her 12-year-old daughter, Maretha (Sierra Heard). Also occupying space in the house is the family's heirloom piano, on which Berniece's great-grandfather had long ago carved images of their family and its travails. Thus, the piano stands as a well-polished and omnipresent symbol of the family's contentious past -- both an item of pride and regret. A pianist herself, Berniece hasn't been able to touch the keyboard since her mother passed away.

Soon, their peaceful life is interrupted by the arrival of Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, and his buddy, the intensely naive Lymon. They have just driven a truckload of watermelons to sell up north, and Boy Willie plans to combine those profits with the sale of the piano to buy the Sutter farm back home, where the family's forebears had been enslaved. Trouble is, Berniece won't part with the piano under any circumstances. To her, it represents a unique and powerful legacy that cannot be relinquished, while for Boy Willie, it's the key to a new life of freedom, made more poignant by the special history of the land he wants to buy.

This confrontation plays out as other people flow through the house, including Avery (crisply passionate Kim Sullivan), an elevator operator and newly minted storefront minister who is trying to woo Berniece, and family friend Wining Boy (rendered with easygoing wooziness by Doug Jewell), a semi-successful blues singer, part-time hustler, and full-time drunk. And there is one more character: the unseen but occasionally heard ghost of Old Man Sutter, an elusive apparition that apparently hitched a ride on the watermelon truck.

The strengths of Wilson's play reside in its compelling theme and a number of finely crafted scenes and characters. In particular, the innocent Lymon, played with adorable insouciance by Marlon Morrison, is a treasure. After he buys a "magic suit" from Wining Boy, who guarantees the electric-blue duds will help him hook up with women, Lymon hits the town and then wends his way back to Berniece's house. Their scene, bashful and heartfelt, is the most tender and real moment in the show. In the somewhat underwritten role of Berniece, Linda Powell is resolute as a woman who will not compromise her values. And Albert Jones is hot-wired as the eagerly ambitious Boy Willie.

But there are too many stretches of exposition in the script, when characters -- especially Doaker (played with mature strength by Wiley Moore) -- are assigned to graph the chronology of family and piano in laborious detail. In addition, the legendary demise of Old Man Sutter down a well is repeatedly explicated, without resolution. Did he fall, or did Boy Willie push him? Eventually, we cease to care.

Director Chuck Patterson does a masterful job of helping his cast craft some memorable characters. But the pacing of some scenes -- particularly the above-mentioned expositions -- is often flat and rushed. Also, the supposedly mystical denouement comes across more as Abbott and Costello & the Haunted Piano, with lights flashing and ominous groans emanating from the stair landing. Perhaps the idea itself would defeat any staging approach, but this choice veers dangerously close to parody and undermines the epiphany it triggers.

So, are African Americans (as well as everyone else) supposed to learn from the past, be haunted by it, or use it as a launching pad for a productive life? Probably all three, if this Piano's lesson is any guide.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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