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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson's play isn't totally harmonious.

By Hsia-Ting Chang | Posted 4/21/2010

The Piano Lesson

By August Wilson

Through April 25 at the Theatre Project

There is something fascinating about a strong, independent woman paired with a hot mess of a man. And watching Bernice (Valerie Lewis) in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, stick to her guns—at times literally—is a feminist delight. But Run of the Mill Theater's production of the play, despite its kick ass heroine, vacillates between powerful and plodding, making for an unfortunately uneven show.

The play's main conflict centers on a family heirloom, an old piano carved with fantastical images of the characters' ancestors. Boy Willie, played by local theater veteran Louis B. Murray, wants to sell the piano for cash. His sister Bernice refuses. As the story unfolds, the audience learns that the history of the family and the heirloom itself are inextricably entwined. Wilson explores the tensions between family members, pitting siblings against each other and putting uncles Doaker (E. Martin Ealy) and Wining Boy (Carltaise Ranson) in the middle.

This production of the 1930s entry in Wilson's decade by decade look at African-American families in the 20th century is a study in extremes. There are times when the dialogue sparkles, when the actors deliver their lines with dedication and unshakeable belief. During these moments Wilson's impressive narrative ability shines. Avery's (Joseph M. Dunn) proposal of marriage to Bernice is one such moment. Under pressure from both a reverend and her family to accept, Bernice's calmness cracks.

"You trying to tell me a woman can't be nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without me—without a woman—and still be a man," she says. "Well, you tell me, Avery, you know, how much woman am I?" The interplay between her glorious, frustrated cry and Avery's inability to understand her need for independence creates a sublime moment.

Likewise, Kareem Diallo Carpenter plays his character Lymon beautifully. On the run from the law, Lymon represents an awkward, lumbering foil to Boy Willie's slick wit, an African-American Lennie Small. His seduction of Bernice electrifies the stage. The tension between them is unexpected, but the delicacy with which Lymon touches her illustrates his emotions in a way that is all the more poignant for the lack of dialogue. In these moments, David Mitchell's directorial instincts and Wilson's vision leave the audience breathless.

Mitchell has done a wonderful job casting the leads for this play. Lewis as Berniece possesses a solid, formidable presence on stage, while Louis B. Murray inhabits Boy Willie's slick-talking skin like he was born to it. Ealy and Ranson provide suitably guiding presences as mediating uncles Doaker and Wining Boy.

But for every high, for every scene that the actors perform to perfection, there are just as many lows, due mostly to weaknesses inherent to Wilson's original play. The Piano Lesson drags at times in this three hour production, lumbering through Bernice's shouted arguments and Boy Willie's refusal to let well enough alone. The bickering between siblings lasts far too long, hashing and re-hashing the matter of the piano without moving forward or advancing the plot. Mitchell would have done better shortening the arguments rather than staying true to the 1980s script.

The play culminates in a chaotic clash of piano keys, vengeful ghosts, and failed exorcisms. Though the supernatural has played some small role in the plot, its sudden prevalence in the final moments of The Piano Lesson upsets the flow of the play and ramps up the melodrama to the point where it all feels ridiculous. Nod to the gothic romance novel, be damned.

The strength of The Piano Lesson lies in its focus on the relationships between family members, the realism with which Wilson portrays this African-American family in the 1930s; the sudden shift to the paranormal is jarring. Instead of an exciting conclusion to the rampant familial tensions, the final scene merely left loose ends for the audience to mull over and a sense of dissatisfaction that lasted long after the fine actors took their bows.

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