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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Piano Lesson

Berniece talking about what she seen. She say Sutter's ghost standing at the top of the stairs. She ain't just make all that up. — Doaker

She up there dreaming. She ain't seen no ghost. — Boy Willie
L to R: Stephen Tyrone Williams, Frances Brown, Miriam A. Hyman John Earl Jelks (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)
There is nothing supernatural about the terrific production at the McCarter Theatre Center of The Piano Lesson, the 1990 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama by August Wilson. This, despite the very real presentiment in it of a ghost. As significant as is the emotionally stirring but also chillingly spectral atmosphere created by director Jade King Carroll, we are also made aware of the very real and visceral changes that are taking in this Pittsburgh home in 1936.

For starters there is the spectacular impressionistic setting by Neil Patel in which the atmospherically lighted homes of Pittsburgh's Hill District loom and are contrasted against the realism of the interior of the home. The main thrust of the action centers on an estranged brother and sister, the grandchildren of slaves.

Attesting to a rich family history are the faces of railroad employee Doaker's (John Earl Jelks) grandparents sculptured on the piano, the most prized family possession. The play's central conflict arises when Doaker's widowed niece Berniece (Miriam A. Hyman) refuses to even consider selling the virtually un-played piano so that her brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) can buy land on the property once owned by their family's 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 (David Pegram), 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.

Both family friends and others, including Berniece's 11 year-old daughter Maretha (Frances Brown), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) Doaker's Sportin' Life-like brother, and Boy Willy and even Lymon's trollop-for-a-night Grace (Shannon Janee Antalan), get a good tossing about thanks to Wilson's intriguing, ghost-embedded plot. Carroll's unfussy but meticulously nuanced direction brings a rewarding credibility to the variously weird, romantic, whimsical and ferocious elements in the play, but always sticking to its course. There are also just enough bluesy musical interludes and fine background sound and scoring (the latter credited to Bill Kirby and Baikida Carroll respectively) to off-set the play's tendency toward narrative excess and its two-hour forty minute length.

The rather hokey but wonderfully theatrical exorcism resolution gives lighting designer Edward Pierce a chance to shine as well as prompt a few shivers from us and even more particularly from the characters whose lives once torn apart are now braced for a cataclysmic renewal. Boy Willie may be a little more than a hurly-burly bag of winds, but Williams makes us see him as sadly heroic. Pegram's performance as Lymon is notably endearing for its lack of sophistication, especially in the light of his misplaced romantic gestures toward the vulnerable Berniece.

Jelks is terrific as Doaker, the family's stabilizing force. Hyman, a 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Drama is a revelation as Berniece, a juicy role that has already been played superbly by others. How refreshing it is to see Berniece's haunted heart re-authenticated with so much verve. There are also fine performances by Owiso Odera, as Berniece's preacher-suitor and by fifth-grader Brown as Berniece's daughter. Also stand-out is Derricks as the hustling piano-playing Wining Boy.

Within the canon of Wilson's 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. And director Carroll has gotten her fine company to play them all memorably.

For more about August Wilson check out Curtainup's Wilson Backgrounder

The Piano Lesson
By August Wilson
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Cast: John Earl Jakes (Doaker), Steven Tyrone Williams (Boy Willie), David Pegram (Lymon), Miriam A. Hyman (Berniece), Frances Brown (Maretha), Owiso Odera (Avery), Clevant Derricks (Wining Boy), Shannon Janee Antalan (Grace).
Scenic Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Edward Pierce
Sound Design: Bill Kirby Composer: Baikida Carroll
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission
McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J.
Ticket Range: $25.00 - $94.50
Dates/Times:Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
From 01/08/16 Opened 01/15/16 Ends 02/07/16
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 01/15/16
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