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A CurtainUp Review
The Piano Lesson
By Charles Whaley
Actors Theatre of Louisville has chosen The Piano Lesson, the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner, as its first production of an August Wilson play. Entrusted with this seminal event, the theatre's new associate artistic director, Timothy Douglas, directing his first play at ATL, has come through with a stunner of a show.
A faultless, eminently watchable cast is headed by Ray Anthony Thomas as the sly, ingratiating Boy Willie, a loose cannon force-of-nature; and Kelly Taffe as his strait-laced, self-assured sister Berniece, who is determined to keep Willie from selling their inherited piano -- an icon and emblem of the family's bloody and tragic slave history -- to buy the land in Mississippi where their ancestors were forced to labor.
With her young daughter Maretha (Margot Adams) and the piano on which a grandfather carved family faces and figures, Berniece, a widow, has moved north to Pittsburgh to share and live in a house owned by her likeable uncle Doaker (Doug Brown, in a sensitive, compelling performance), who has worked 27 years for the railroad. The play is set in 1936 and is part of Wilson's majestic series of plays covering the black experience in America in each decade of the 20th Century.
Boy Willie has come north with his friend Lymon (Joshua Wolf Coleman). On Lymon's (borrowed or stolen?) truck is a load of watermelons to sell before he can carry out his scheme to make off with the piano and sell it, too, for cash to buy that farmland back home.
Stubbornly ignoring the oft-repeated advice of others -- family friend Wining Boy (William Charles Mitchell), a gambling-addicted hard-drinking piano player/singer who has cut a couple of records; also Avery (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a dignified preacher who works as an elevator operator and wants to start his own Good Shepherd Church as well as persuade Berniece to marry him -- Boy Willie uses threats, sweet talk, and exhortation--everything in his bag of tricks--to get that piano. He even tries, with Lymon's reluctant help, to move the heavy instrument through sheer brute strength. But it is as immovable as Berniece, rocklike in her opposition to him.
Though the play is overly long and slows noticeably during some of the group singing that erupts from time to time, Wilson's dialogue is masterly and his characters are people to care about. Despite its serious central issue of holding on to the past as opposed to looking toward the future, The Piano Lesson offers lots of humor, particularly in the seduction scene between Boy Willie and good-time girl Grace (Pascale Armand), a barroom pickup. And an unexpected romantic moment that Berniece and Lymon tenderly and delicately share is magical as played by Taffe and Coleman.
A ghost, exemplifying the family's haunted history, is sighted now and then as it roams the house and terrifies whoever encounters it. Old man Sutter, the deceased white owner `of the land Boy Willie wants to buy, is thought to be the apparition. Did Sutter actually fall in a well and drown, or did Boy Willie, who shiftily denies it, push him in?
Wilson obviously agrees with philosopher George Santayana that there is nothing impossible in the existence of the supernatural; its existence seems to me decidedly possible.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER AUGUST WILSON PLAYS
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