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The Piano Lesson†
By† Simon† Saltzman
† Attesting to a rich family history are the faces of railroad employee Doakerís (James A. Williams) grandparents sculptured on the piano, the most prized family possession. The playís central conflict arises when Doakerís widowed niece Berniece (Roslyn Ruff) refuses to even consider selling the virtually un-played piano so that her brother Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden) can buy land on the property once owned by their familyís slave-master.
† Carved out of sorrow by the great-grandfather whose wife and child were sold to another master in exchange for the piano, the piano has become a family symbol, forever rooted in the memories of separation, pain and even death. Accompanied by his fugitive friend Lyman (Jason Dirden, who is Brandon Dirdenís real-life brother), Boy Willie has arrived from the South with a truckload of ripe watermelons to sell — and a dream of finally buying his own farm with the accumulated proceeds that he hopes will include money from the sale of the piano. (Going forward I will refer to the Dirden brothers by their first names).
† Both family friends and others, including Bernieceís 11 year-old daughter Maretha (Alexis Holt), Wining Boy (Chuck Coooper) Doakerís Sportiní Life-like brother, and Boy Willy and even Lymonís trollop-for-a-night Grace (Mandi Masden), get a good tossing about thanks to Wilsonís intriguing, ghost-embedded plot. Santiago-Hudsonís keenly focused direction is at its best when it strays either romantically or whimsically from its course. There are just enough bluesy musical interludes to off-set the playís tendency toward narrative excess and its three-hour length.
† The rather hokey but theatrical exorcismic resolution is notably enhanced by lighting designer Rui Rita who dramatically casts his unsettling lights and shadows on lives once torn apart, now braced for a cataclysmic renewal. Boy Willie may be a little more than a hurly-burly bag of wind, but Brandon makes us see him as poignantly heroic. Jasonís performance as Lymon is graced by a disarming charm, especially in the light of his unfortunately misplaced romantic gestures toward the vulnerable Berniece.
† Williams is terrific as Doaker, the familyís stabilizing force. Ruff, who appeared in Wilsonís Seven Guitars at the Signature, and so memorable for her performance in the film The Help, never misses a beat of Bernieceís haunted heart.
There are also fine performances by Eric Lenox Abrams, as Bernieceís preacher-suitor and Holt as Bernieceís daughter. The humorously captivating performance of Cooper as the hustling piano-playing Wining Boy is no figment of the imagination. Within the canon of Wilsonís plays that cover the African-American experience in the 20th century, and particularly those in which the natural world is invaded by the supernatural, the characters of The Piano Lesson (the 4th play in the cycle) perhaps strike the clearest and brightest notes.
† For more about August Wilson and links to other plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, see our August Wilson Backgrounder
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