THE PIANO LESSON (McCarter): A fine tune

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper.

David Pegram and Stephen Tyrone Williams in THE PIANO LESSON. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
David Pegram and Stephen Tyrone Williams in THE PIANO LESSON. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Storytelling prevails so strongly and engrossingly in McCarter Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s THE PIANO LESSON, you marvel at how adroitly director Jade King Carroll and her cast sidestep playwright August Wilson’s repetitions and shaggy dog yarns to keep the staging so seamlessly compelling. This PIANO LESSON maintains an authenticity; the drama never seems contrived or emotionally charged. Big moments play better because they evolve organically from the work as a whole. The long-winded stories play delightfully because Carroll’s cast entertain their listeners, joy in trading memories, and contrast life in post-Reconstruction Mississippi with life in their adopted 1930s Pittsburgh.

THE PIANO LESSON begins one early morning with Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and his friend Lyman (David Pegram), who have driven a huge truck loaded with ripe watermelon from rural Mississippi to urban Pittsburgh. Boy Willie intends to sell the melons on Pittsburgh street corners, combine the profit he derives with cash he’s saved, and sell an intricately carved piano Berniece treasures to amass enough money to buy the Mississippi land on which he, and his family before him, worked through generations dating back 140 years to slave times. His main obstacle is his sister Berniece (Miriam A. Hyman), who owns half of the piano and has possession of it.

Engravings in the piano tell the story of the Charles family, of slavery and of post-Civil War events. Berniece brought that piano from Mississippi to Pittsburgh so she could care for it and preserve it as a memory her daughter, Maretha, can have and speak of.

To Boy Willie, the piano is just another object. He sees it as part of his legacy, one his forefathers provided so he could venture into the future as a farmer of his own land and not dwell on the past. Though Berniece earns more sentiment with her argument, from their uncle Doaker (John Earl Jelks) and the others as well as from the audience, Carroll and Williams make Boy Willie’s side of the conflict compelling. Although Boy Willie is often given to more talk than action, Williams makes you believe how crucial it is to his being to be proprietor of that Mississippi land and how determined he is to make a success of his farm.

piano lesson -- interiorThe assembled cast is multi-talented. Derricks and Hyman both take turns playing the disputed piano. (I’m told the piano is the same one used in Lloyd Richards’s debut Yale Rep production of 1987, which means the McCarter production boasts a member of the original cast, however inanimate.)

Neil Patel’s set shows a comfortable Pittsburgh home that may not have frills but is stocked with all of the necessities and looks inviting as a place to stay and live. Patel has isolated the piano far stage-left, a choice that emphasizes the instruments presence, makes its carvings available for study, and provides a lot of playing space that comes in handy.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes are excellent throughout and gain distinction with the silk suit Wining Boy sells to Lyman, who is about half of his size. Edward Pierce’s lighting evokes the mood of most scenes and gives credibility to the ghost sequences. Bill Kirby’s sound design also backs up the ghost story. Baikida Carroll’s original music captures the right tone for Jade King Carroll’s production.

Carroll’s PIANO LESSON is Wilson as it’s meant to be seen. It is the eighth staging I’ve seen, including the 1990 original Broadway production, and, by far, the best and most consistently engaging. Read the full review >>

[McCarter Theatre on University Place in Princeton, N.J.]  January 8-February 7, 2016;

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