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The Piano Lesson — McCarter Theatre

piano lesson -- interior 2Storytelling prevails so strongly and engrossingly in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” you marvel and how adroitly director Jade King Carroll and her cast sidestep playwright August Wilson’s repetitions and shaggy dog yarns to keep her staging so seamlessly compelling.

This is a “Piano Lesson” that overcomes the myriad pitfalls that hamper lesser presentations of Wilson. It maintains an authenticity, and a sense that you are witnessing flesh-and-blood people going about their lives. The drama never seems contrived or emotionally charged for the sake of grand, ostentatious effect. There’s a naturalness to Carroll’s proceedings that absorbs the loudest theatrical fireworks and integrates them within the general fabric of a solid play. Big moments play better because they evolve organically from the work as a whole. Series of often long-winded stories play delightfully because Carroll’s cast is so adept at entertaining their listeners on stage, their joy in trading memories, and in contrasting life in post-Reconstruction Mississippi with life in their adopted 1930s Pittsburgh, radiates to the McCarter audience.

Carroll’s “The Piano Lesson” is smooth and taut. Exposition flows. Even the voodoo, spirituality, and ghosts Wilson includes to a potentially eye-rolling extent are neatly folded into Carroll’s narrative with felicitous spontaneity and reality, so passages that often play as detrimental hokum register as serious, threatening, symbolic, and life-changing.

As the brother and sister who spar over whether to sell or keep an heirloom piano that bears significant images their grandfather carved to preserve family history, Stephen Tyrone Williams and Miriam A. Hyman keep tension high and make individual cases for their points of view. You don’t mind Williams’s Boy Willie explaining his plan to buy a farm, one his family historically worked as slaves, sharecroppers, and renters, in its entirety every time a new character enters because Williams relates it with such pride, optimism, sense, and passion. Per Williams, Boy Willie’s need to claim a stake on the land on which his family labored for others touches a chord that makes his argument poignant in spite of Hyman’s Berniece being equally vehement and having logic, sentiment, appreciation, and moral high ground militating in her favor. Hyman is particularly deft at showing different, almost contradictory sides of Berniece, who can be gentle and angry within seconds and who is willing to tolerate a lot from the various Charleses who visit and live with her but gives no quarter to Boy Willie, his schemes, or the date he picks up to make love to in Berniece’s parlor.

John Earl Jelks may achieve the most remarkable magic. As Doaker, uncle to Berniece and Boy Willie and owner of the house where Berniece lives, Jelks, by sheer force of personality and exquisite timing, starts the reminiscing about Mississippi going between his brother, Wining Boy, Boy Willie, and Lyman, a friend of Boy Willie’s, and has such fun doing it, you listen in amusement and take in the history that’s being imparted instead of accusing Wilson of lollygagging verbally between critical scenes.

Jelks leads the incidental part of “The Piano Lesson,” the sequences in which the experiences of slavery, Jim Crow-ism, rampant racism, and segregation are related through personal tales and questions about who remembers what. He does so in a subtle manner. Doaker is the most subdued, least emotional, least troubled or troublemaking of the Charles clan, yet within his quiet and dignity, Jelks gives him a knack for telling a good story and keeping everyone else on keel.

Jelks sets a tone of enjoyment that make the stories diverting. By doing so, he and his cohorts provide a lot of the information that gives “The Piano Lesson” its texture. The good news is you want to grab a chair, take your place at Doaker’s dining room table, and be part of the jawing, one-upmanship, augmenting, and correcting Wilson assigns Doaker, Boy Willie, Wining Boy, and Lyman to do.

There’s an energy to the ongoing talk. There’s a sense of badinage, of joshing. Far from boring or becoming tedious, as these exact passages from “The Piano Lesson” have in other productions, the yarns become interesting and pleasing. You don’t mind the men going on. They make the key parts they’re exposing, such as how the piano came into the Charles family, how it came to be carved, and legends from Mississippi, particularly the “ghost of the yellow dog” clear, fun, and fascinating. Jelks and crew let you see Wilson as a weaver and a verbal craftsman, a welcome and refreshing change from the impression of Wilson as an overloader and overlarder of background facts.

Jelks keeps the pace conversational. He and Carroll combine to create a great dramatic rhythm that has levels and soars mightily when Doaker begins a chant all the men learned during individual terms at Parchman Farm, a Mississippi prison camp. Wining Boy, Boy Willie, and Lymon pick up the chant and perform it with muscular gusto that enlivens the McCarter stage and gives “The Piano Lesson” an invigorating passage that elevates the spirit of what could be a dry, barren first-act middle and that keeps that level of vitality going for the duration of the play.

Jelks is the catalyst. He does not work this wonder alone. Williams, who never performs at less than 200 percent, infuses the Parchman chant, and the scene in general, with Boy Willie’s natural raucous exuberance. That reliable hand, Cleavant Derricks, who always revs plays up with his energy and wit, comes through again as Wining Boy. David Pegram, with his big smile and open honesty about what he wants in life — a decent job and a ready woman in Pittsburgh, not the South —   brings more fuel to the theatrical fire. Pegram is excellent throughout Carroll’s production, whether he’s a cog in the ensemble or the center of a scene.

Carroll’s “The Piano Lesson” is Wilson as it’s meant to be seen. It is the eighth “Piano Lesson” I’ve seen, including the 1990 original Broadway production, and, by far, the best and most consistently engaging.

“The Piano Lesson” begins one early morning when Boy Willie who, with Lyman, has driven a huge truck, loaded with ripe watermelon, from rural Mississippi to urban Pittsburgh. His intention is to sell the melons on Pittsburgfh 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 Berniece owning half of the piano and having possession of it.

NealBoxBoy Willie can’t legitimately sell the piano, nor can Berniece retain it, without the other’s consent. That doesn’t stop either from making a case and standing his or her ground. The result is a stalemate, one each sibling is prepared to uphold by force, that becomes “The Piano Lesson’s” central conflict. Berniece is not letting an heirloom her grandfather carved, her father died to protect, and her mother polished lovingly every day for 17 years, go to a stranger, a mere purveyor of musical instruments, for cash. The Charles family history in engraved in that piano. It tells the story of slavery and of post-Civil War events that are signature to the Charleses’ beings. 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 a past marked by subjugation, unpaid labor, prejudice, sheriff’s caveat, and rent paid to the exact people who enslaved the Charleses and made their lives a misery, including through sales that broke up the family and double dealings that took advantage of, and assured, their poverty after Reconstruction. Though Berniece earns more sentiment with her argument, from Doaker and the others as well as from the audience, Carroll and Williams have, for once, made Boy Willie’s side of the conflict sympathetic. 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 determined he is to make a success of his farm.

Berniece continues to hold some aces, but Carroll and Williams deal Boy Willie some high cards other directors and actors don’t make as apparent or worthy of actual consideration.

Congratulate August Wilson. The elements Carroll and Williams illuminate so clearly are always in the author’s text. They made them dramatic, relevant, and interesting contentious.

Wilson, in his decalogue of the black American experience through the 20th century, is as much a history professor as he is a playwright. Carroll and her cast give both vocations their due by finding a way to make the history salient and theatrically digestible while never stinting on, and even enhancing, the inherent drama.

Subplots introduce us to key figures in the Charles family, all of whom find a way to entertain us. Boy Willie rousts Berniece’s house, much to her chagrin, at 5 a.m. on the morning he arrives with Lyman and the watermelons. We meet Doaker right away and see him immediately as a raisonneur and peacemaker while Berniece appears at her most shrewish, nasty, and termagant. The battles in the beginning are mostly about Boy Willie making so much noise and waking Berniece and her daughter, Maretha, age 8, a full hour-and-a-half before they have to rise for work and school.

As Doaker, Lyman, and Boy Willie talk following Berniece’s stormy greeting, you hear about another of Boy Willie’s uncles, Wining Boy, a gambler who makes his stake playing jazz piano wherever fortune, gigs, and women lead him. In true Wilson fashion, Wining Boy will show up in all of his comic relief glory as portrayed by Derricks.

Slavery and dealing with a segregated, prejudiced South the sheriffs of which viewed black men as prison fodder are both covered by Wilson and made personal and intriguing by Jelks, Williams, Derricks, and Pegram.

Carroll has provided a complete “The Piano Lesson,” and theatergoers, and Wilson fans, should be grateful for it.

piano lesson -- interiorThe assembled cast is multi-talented. Derricks and Hyman both take turns playing the disputed piano. The carvings on the instrument can’t help but get your attention, especially the two figures that look straight from classic African art that look to be holding up both ends of the keyboard. (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.)

Williams, Hyman, and Jelks lead an impressive supporting cast.

First, let’s give more attention to Miriam A. Hyman. While the men anchor Carroll’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” Hyman causes tension and intrigue every time she comes on stage.

Hyman’s Berniece is volatile and mercurial. You never know what she is going to do or how she is going to react. You know anger, and disdain for his brother and his intentions, are the core of Berniece’s being while Boy Willie is in her house, but Hyman shows you complete and believable alternate sides of Berniece’s personality. Oh, she’s tough, even as a mother to Maretha, but she can be soft and gracious and even flirtatious when the mood strikes. One of the best and most atmospheric scenes in Carroll’s production is one in which Berniece nearly lets herself be seduced by Lyman and only has the perception of Maretha being in the house to caution her. Both Hyman and Pegram are masterful in this scene, another that takes it time and set this staging apart from other “Piano Lessons.”

Hyman lets you see Berniece as a competent woman who has set standards. She holds the memory of her late husband, Crawley, killed perhaps because of a botched crime instigated by Boy Willie, but knows she has to make her own way in Pittsburgh. Her serious determination is her strength, so she is inclined to maintain it even at the risk of being harsh with Maretha and unyielding to Boy Willie. In random conversations with Jelks’s Doaker, in Berniece’s relationship with a preacher from home, Avery, in her revealing a womanly side to Lyman, and at moments at home when she can let her guard down, you catch glimpses of Berniece as she might prefer to be if her mind was more consistently at ease, and she wasn’t beset by challenges at many turns.

David Pegram is a joy to behold as the happy-go-lucky Lyman. He plays him as a guy who floats through life. He has neither the anger or intensity of Boy Willie. His ambition is much more conventional — get a job, find a wife, stay out of jail — and his manner is one of the natural charmer.

Pegram endows Lyman with personality. He keeps him from being the also-ran among the male cast by exuding Lyman’s easygoing, uncomplicated attitude towards everything.

Shannon Janee Antalan makes three appearances, one as a barroom floozy Boy Willie brings home, another as the same floozy, this time picked up by Lyman, and one as Lyman’s girlfriend, and possible fiancée, miffed because Lyman has been ignoring her and showing signs he can live without her. Each time, Antalan brightens the stage. She brings an urban, modern turn to the proceedings, and she is smart enough to eventually show Grace has more substance, and more genuine feeling, than a girl out to find a man and a meal ticket.

Owiso Odera shows the propriety and piety of a minister while being able to relax among people he knew from Mississippi, including Berniece, with whom he has an understanding. Odera, though one of the younger members of the cast, adds urban assurance to the production. He is particularly fine in a scene in which he is conducting an exorcism to rid the Charles home of an ominous ghost, also someone from Mississippi, someone Boy Willie may have intentionally killed.

Frances Brown is sweet and naturally fidgety as Maretha. Carroll has a good eye for casting because Brown looks as if she can be Hyman’s daughter.

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. Patel’s set also contributes to some signature moments in Wilson’s play.

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.

“The Piano Lesson” refers to several ghosts. Often these seem convenient as deuses ex machina that allow Wilson easy dramatic resolution. Sometimes the ghosts register as corny or as mere superstition. Carroll has done to make them an integral part of her production, so integral you have a hard time conceiving Wilson’s play without them.

“The Piano Lesson” runs through Sunday, February 7, at the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre, on University Place in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $94.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-2787 or by visiting www.mccarter.org.

 

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