Theatre Review: “The Piano Lesson” at the IRT

Last Thursday night I drove to downtown Indy to see August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.   This stirring, Pulitzer-prize winning play was directed here by Seret Scott. 

I went to see this show because doing so made me feel virtuous.  Seeing an award-winning play is always good for improving one’s cultural literacy.  Also, February is Black History Month.  I go back and forth about whether having a Black History Month (or a Women’s History Month or whatever) is a good idea, but in any case, why not take advantage of the chance to see a play that I might not otherwise get to see?

However, by the end of the play I had forgotten all about earning gold stars of approval.  I applauded wildly at the end simply because the show had moved me on a personal level.  Yes, it is a very specific piece – historically and culturally – but it speaks eloquently to universal themes and experiences.  The IRT’s production is artistically fascinating and satisfying as well.

The setting is Pittsburgh in 1936.  Two adult siblings fight over the future of a family heirloom: an elaborately carved piano. 

The brother, Boy Willie (Carl Cofield), wants to sell the piano and use the money to buy a piece of farmland down south, where the family is from.  He and his friend, Lymon (Warner Miller), have just arrived from there.  They have brought a load of watermelons north, too, to sell and add to the piano money.

The sister, Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), no longer plays the piano herself, but she didn’t bring it all the way up north just to sell it.  Her daughter, Maretha (Mackenzie Isaac), is taking lessons on it.  More importantly, the piano is drenched with the family’s history.  Not only are the family’s stories told in the carvings, but the blood and tears of the family’s enslaved ancestors are rubbed into the wood.  It is irreplaceable.

At first, I sympathized only with Berniece.  I thought, “That piano is gorgeous!  Who in their right mind would ever think of selling it?  No amount of money would ever be worth losing it!”

But gradually I began to sympathize with Boy Willie, too.  “That piano is his only inheritance.  Or at least, the only inheritance from which he can earn a living.  I don’t blame him for wanting to have more control over his life, to be more financially successful.  Farming is hard work, but he is willing to work hard.  He just needs a chance to get going with it.  No amount of beautifully carved wood is worth staying poor.”

It’s not just about the piano, of course.  It’s about knowing when to hang on to something – a belief, a behavior, a history,  a location, a relationship, a thing – and when to let go.  There are rarely easy answers for this kind of question.

The playwright layers in several of this kind of question.  For example, Berniece struggles with an offer of marriage from a good man whom she likes but does not love.  Avery (Geoffrey D. Williams) is a new preacher, trying to establish a church.  A good wife would help him, so he is not going to give up easily on Berniece.  I was moved by his “Here am I, Lord! Take me!” dream speech, even if he did steal it from St. Paul.

The ghost of the slave owner who used to own the piano is apparently still around, too, trying to get the piano back and/or trying to communicate who killed him.

A friend of the family, Whining Boy (Glenn Turner) earns his living as a piano player.  He confesses that a piano gets emotionally heavy after a few years.  “Am I me or am I the piano player?” he asks. 

Yet he starts a conversational song when he is visiting with Boy Willie, Lymon, and Doaker (the siblings’ uncle, played by Chuck Patterson) that turns into something powerful and ritualistic.  The men use not just their voices but also percussion “instruments” made spontaneously out of kitchen utensils.

Later in the play, Wining Boy plays the piano accompanied by Doaker on guitar and Boy Willie on harmonica, with Lymon playing the pie plates again for percussion.  This show is not a musical, per se, but the musical elements are creative and wonderful.

This show is not a comedy, either, but there are lots of humorous elements.  Boy Willie picks up a woman named Grace (Jessica Frances Dukes) who is both funny and sexy.

And sometimes the show is just plain spooky.  The lighting (designed by Michael Lincoln) and sound (designed by Todd Mack Reischman) are especially clever in the way they evoke the ghost.

The set, designed by Russell Metheny, is gorgeous, as I am beginning to expect all IRT sets to be.  The attention to detail is impressive.   At one point, Doaker prepares and cooks “grilled bread” (what I think of as French toast) on the working 1930s stove.  Later in the play, Berniece draws a big pot of water from the working sink for her bath.  Another pot is already steaming on the stove.

The stained glass in the door is beautiful, as is the patterned carpet running up the stairs to the second floor.

The costumes, designed by Karen Perry, are beautiful, too.  I loved the patterned seams on the backs of Berniece’s stockings, and the spats on dandy Wining Boy’s shoes.

The language is beautiful, too.  Well, maybe not always beautiful (is the N word ever beautiful?) but rich and consistent and thought-provoking.  It is interesting to hear the speech patterns of this group of people in this time and place.  For example, “I ain’t thinkin’ bout Boy Willie” translates for me into “I don’t care what Boy Willie thinks.”   For another example, Berniece tells her daughter to hurry on to school so she won’t be late.  She adds, “Don’t be goin’ down there and showin’ your color.” 

I had never seen a Wilson play before; now I would like to see all of them.  According to the program notes and the Enrichment Guide, Wilson wrote one play for each decade of the 20th century.  I would like to learn what Wilson saw as a pivotal issue for African Americans in each decade.  I would also like to see how Wilson incorporated his explorations of spirituality in each play.

By the way, the whole Enrichment Guide is a treat.  It is free; ask for it at the table just inside the doors of the theatre.  It was edited by Richard J. Roberts and Milicent Wright, with contributions by Katelyn Coyne, Ethan Kingen, Katie Norton, and Abby Weber.

At the pre-show talk, which is always offered 45 minutes before the show begins, I asked actor Warner Miller where the piano had come from.  He said that there are approximately five of these specially carved pianos in the country, and that theatres take turns using them for this show.  I imagine that it is a bit of a hassle to move one of these pianos from place to place, but it is well worth the trouble of bringing it in.

I feel the same way about these actors: they are special.  Almost all of them are experienced professional actors making their IRT debuts with this show.  I don’t think any of them except Mackenzie Isaac is based here in Indianapolis.  At any rate, like most professional actors, they move around as much as the piano does to find work.  Indy is lucky to have them all here for this show.

“The Piano Lesson” continues on IRT’s Main Stage through March 15.  Please call 317-635-5252 to make a reservation.

Hope Baugh –

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