BWW Reviews: THE PIANO TEACHER at The REP - Mysterioso and Lacrimoso
"What's so wonderful about the truth?" asks Mrs. K, the title character in Julia Cho's 2007 drama The Piano Teacher, revived at the REP Stage in Columbia.
Mrs. K (here meticulously portrayed by Laureen E. Smith) has been doing pretty well without the truth, if by well you count living with pinched gentility in a nondescript suburb, in a solitary widowed retirement after a career teaching the less talented students. She has missed out at virtuosity on her chosen instrument herself because her hands were too small, and now arthritis has robbed her even of her former competence. And apparently she missed out on the best of marriages by having wed a solitary older man, a lost and traumatized refugee from some nameless war-torn land, and with his death she has come to lack even his dubiously stimulating company. She does have her tea cookies, which she shares with the audience at the outset, and her Dancing with the Stars on TV.
Unfortunately for the fragile peace she had achieved by sidestepping the truth, she succumbs to the temptation to fill in the gaps by reaching out to a few former students, notably Mary (Kashi-Tara). Among these gaps is the explanation for a recital in which Mary was among her students who all seemed to succumb to a series of "train-wrecks." Why would they all suffer that fate at the same time?
Nor is Mary the only "Ghost of Train-Wrecks Past" who visits Mrs. K. She also encounters Michael (Joshua Morgan), a creepy psychological hulk of a former potential virtuoso. Something happened involving those two and Mrs. K's deceased husband. We may think we know, but I suspect most guesses will be wrong. We know the play is going in a dark direction, but we may well not guess how dark.
In the end, having found the heart of her particular darkness, Mrs. K decides to choose a brighter version of her past. "I'll tell it to the end," she determines as the play closes.
This chilly tale is not a play to love, but it is a potential showcase for acting and directing talent, and the REP Stage, beloved for presenting Equity performers in pristine productions, lives up to its high standards here. Smith is absolutely outstanding as the slightly dotty, sturdy but emotionally hobbled teacher; we are not meant to know whether to admire or be horrified by her embrace of the half-truth, and Smith conveys that duality unflinchingly. We are not given enough information to know exactly what to make of the two former students, but Kashi-Tara and Morgan each do well embodying a degree of damage. Kashi-Tara's is the slightly more challenging role, because she must convey a life only partly marked by the unnamed trauma. Morgan, however, is to be commended for a portrayal that is textbook emotional basket-case. We may not fully understand these characters, but thanks to the actors and Kasi Campbell's direction, we certainly believe in them.
The play is billed as an "affective thriller," a strange term I have not previously encountered. Whatever the intended denotation, I would dispute the use of "thriller." The play is not exciting in that way. It holds the interest as a portrait of a flawed individual gradually encountering the whole story that made her and others what they are. "Chiller" would work, but not "thriller." Whatever the terminology, the play is well worth a look.
The Piano Teacher, by Julia Cho, directed by Kasi Campbell, at REP Stage, Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD, through February 23, 2014. Tickets $15-$40, www.repstage.org and 443-518-1500. Brief adult language, brief accounts of sexual activity. May be too intense for children.