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In Tune

Center Stage's Piano Lesson Nears Virtuosity

theater: Terry Alexander (left) and Charles Weldon in The Piano Lesson

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 5/30/2001

The Piano Lesson and The Bus Drivers, Choo Choo Valley, Chunka

August Wilson and By Matthew Ramsay

The piano is center stage in the beautifully mounted and often powerful Center Stage production of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. It is so because it's more than just a piano; it's an African-American family's most valuable possession. Ancestral figures are carved into the sides of the instrument, and it's been in this family for several generations.

Now the piano is at the heart of a debate between Berniece, who wants to keep it in the Pittsburgh house where she lives, and her brother, Boy Willie, who wants to sell it in order to buy enough Mississippi land to put him on an equal standing with white farmers. The year is 1936, and the legacy of slavery is still fresh. Even fresher is the tension within the black community between those who have migrated north and others who've opted, at least for now, to remain in the South. This Southern family has been uprooted, with results that seem more promising for some family members than others. Widowed for three years and now living with her 11-year-old daughter, Maretha, in the Pittsburgh home of her uncle Doaker, Berniece thinks she has found some measure of stability, if not exactly personal bliss.

Her status quo is shaken when Boy Willie makes an unannounced appearance at Doaker's door at 5 a.m. Boy Willie and a pal from back home, Lymon, have driven up from Mississippi with a truck full of watermelons they're hoping to sell. A conservative churchgoing lady of few words, Berniece is the complete opposite of Boy Willie, who talks nonstop and moves around the house like a man whose energy is too great for these walls to contain. If Boy Willie takes after anybody, it must be another uncle, Wining Boy, a drinker and a gambler.

The Piano Lesson has all the makings for a family feud, but it's obviously much more than that. One of the strongest entries in Wilson's cycle of plays chronicling 20th-century African-American life, it's a brilliant example of how myth, metaphor, family history, the supernatural, and a plain love of storytelling can be fused into deeply moving drama. The musicality of Wilson's language is perfectly mirrored in the metaphorical use made of the musical instrument residing in the family parlor.

Although the first act dawdles, the second act has the impact of a train whistling a warning to make way for it; indeed, that's a sound we actually hear. Wilson's work tends to suffer from shapelessness--like his current Broadway play, the meandering King Hedley II--but Piano has a firm narrative spine and relatively few digressions.

The Center Stage production falls a bit short of conveying all that power, but there's still much to admire here. Joseph Edward is a highly animated Boy Willie, if not quite the force of nature Charles Dutton was when he originated the role on Broadway in 1990. Edward's performance is marred by several minor hesitations--and hesitate is something Boy Willie would never do. A little seasoning in the role should take care of this.

Fanni Green brings an understated strength to Berniece; Terry Alexander puts across the solid decency of Doaker; Harvey Gardner Moore is first-rate as the good-natured if slow-witted country boy Lymon; and, in this production's best performance, Charles Weldon absolutely nails the smiling bravado of Wining Boy, whose personality is as slick as his hair.

The story takes place on a set by Donald Eastman that admirably conveys the lower-middle-class respectability that means so much to Doaker. Director Reggie Montgomery keeps the action fluid, although he overdoes some of the supernatural effects that emanate from the piano and fill the house. On opening night, there was lighthearted audience laughter during several ghostly scenes that should have provoked nervous laughter at best.

There's nothing wrong with this production that a tad more intensity wouldn't solve. A case in point is the moment when four male characters who have been idly bullshitting spontaneously burst into impressively coordinated singing and drumming. That moment hit with primal force in the Broadway production, but here it looks like performers following their scripted instructions. Cut the rug and raise the roof, fellas, because this is music from the gut.

Not many contemporary playwrights could hold their own with August Wilson, so it might seem downright cruel to bring Baltimore playwright Matthew Ramsay into the discussion. Still, even if Ramsay's three short plays at Emmanuel Church in Mount Vernon, produced by a company called Fablevision and directed by Ramsay, were discussed on another page during some other week, they'd still seem weak and pointless.

The Bus Drivers, for instance, is set in a lounge area where these drivers shoot the breeze and down cups of coffee. Their conversations lurch in stilted fashion rather than flow; likewise, there's little feeling for the particulars of the bus drivers' lives. The script wears its existentialist agenda on its uniformed sleeve, including such heavy touches as having a driver relax by reading Heidegger's Being and Time on his coffee break.

Choo Choo Valley largely fails for the same reasons. Its plot develops from restaurant workers bantering while on a break, and yet the play has little feel for the texture of their lives. The third play, Chunka, is an arbitrary mess that spoofs both Renaissance-era theater and our modern obsession with videotaping all of experience.

The cast members (among them City Paper production assistant Mark Linthicum) perform vigorously, if in vain, and some of them, notably Anne Mulligan, manage to bring integrity to scenes that otherwise lack it. Ramsay, who was artistic director of the local theater company Bowman Ensemble from 1990 to 1996, shows flickers of writing talent amid the sophomoric stuff. More discipline and discretion are needed, because his anything-goes approach often leads nowhere.

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