BWW Reviews: THE PIANO LESSON Marks August Wilson's Auspicious Debut at Olney Theatre Center
Good news, folks! Olney Theatre Center has finally taken the plunge in their intimate black-box space with their inaugural August Wilson production, The Piano Lesson. Blessed with a talented cast under the brilliant direction of Jamil Jude, they should enjoy a prosperous run. The choice of play is auspicious; local Wilson fans may recall that Baltimore's own Charles S. Dutton created the leading role of Boy Willie in both the original Broadway and film versions.
Wilson sets The Piano Lesson in the 1930's, smack in the middle of the period known as the Great Migration, when African Americans fled the Deep South in hopes of a better life in the industrial cities up north. During this time people tended to settle with friends and family from the same home town; in urban black neighborhoods like Pittsburgh's Hill District (where the action is set), there were frequent trips back and forth and the air was filled with news, gossip and tall tales from "back home."
I mention this because one of the obstacles to understanding this play is that its driving force, Boy Willie, has only come to Pittsburgh long enough to cash in on his family legacy and return to Mississippi. As a result he spends an inordinate amount of time talking and dreaming about a place we never see. Violent, Jim-Crow era Mississippi, and all that it represents, hangs heavily on some of the play's characters, while others are determined to be done with Mississippi for once and for all.
Thereby hangs the tale, and the complicated moral universe of Wilson's characters. And the piano of the title, with its unique and bloody history, endures as one of the most powerful stage metaphors of our time.
Boy Willie dreams of buying the farm his family worked as sharecroppers and slaves for generations; to raise the money he and his hometown buddy, Lymon, arrive in Pittsburgh in the dead of night with a truck full of watermelons. The plan is to sell the melons and then sell a family heirloom Willie has inherited along with his sister Berniece: an old upright piano made valuable because family portraits were carved into the wood by their great-grandfather. With his savings and the proceeds from the watermelons and piano, Boy Willie believes his future Down South is secure.
The obstacle, of course, is that as far as Berniece is concerned the piano is not for sale at any price. Too much blood was spilled in its creation and its acquisition, for it to be sold for quick cash. As a result, two diametrically opposed visions of fulfillment square off: in one corner you have Willie's dream of owning the farm that once owned his family, while in the other you have Berniece's insistence on forgetting the South but keeping the piano to honor the family's legacy. The conflict is made even harsher by the presence of a ghost, the late owner of the piano and the farm Willie covets, who rises from the grave to haunt Berniece and her young daughter Maretha.
Ronald Conner's interpretation of Boy Willie is everything you could possibly ask for; he's boisterous, he's a schemer and a liar, but he's also a young man determined to get justice for his family, and that justice consists of grabbing a handful of earth he can call his own. His side-kick, Lymon, is played with engaging innocence by John Hudson Odom. In Odom's Lymon, we have a 'bama' who knows nothing of big-city ways, let alone big-city fashion-he's conned into buying a hilariously tacky suit for a night on the town. Jessica Frances Dukes owns the role of Berniece, and in the epic battle with her brother Willie she gives as good as she gets. But there is a tender side to her character, and the development of her friendship with Lymon is as touching as it is fleeting. It turns out Lymon shares Berniece's vision of a life as far away from Jim Crow as possible.
As a writer Wilson can be generous, and he makes sure that you never forget his supporting players; Jonathan Peck anchors the action as Berniece and Willie's uncle, Doaker. A solid working-class guy, the action takes place in Doaker's home, and Peck's quiet, moral authority somehow manages to keep things from getting out of hand. JaBen Early's cool flame burns bright as Avery, an aspiring minister who has been courting Berniece (a widow--another long story) for years; this born-again man of the cloth is fully human, complex, and sincere. His moral opposite is Wining Boy, a one-hit wonder and piano demon; Harold Surratt charms the spots off the leopard in this role. And Lauren DuPree shines all too briefly as Grace, the self-sure woman from the big city who is the object of both Willie and Lymon's affections.
Last but not least, a special shout-out is in order for young Nicole Wildy, who plays Maretha. A young prodigy, Maretha is the only member of the family who still plays the piano, and the scene where Wildy gives a brief solo is a highlight of the evening.
Set designer Daniel Ettinger has created a cozy living room & kitchenette; this realistic touch is balanced by some abstract touches, including a picket-fence motif lining the walls and a strange 'landslide' that opens Act II. Reggie Ray captures the spirit of the 1930's, the good and the tacky, with his costumes and sound designer Elisha Ittoop provides some period music as well as haunting motifs that succeed in giving the show's piano a soul. Xavier Pierce's lighting design, generally discreet and efficient, comes to the fore with the play's denouement, a spectacle which must be seen to be believed.
Wilson's plays are charming but can be a long watch, and perhaps because the South looms large in The Piano Lesson some of its monologues are so long and intricate even the actors themselves seem to get lost in them. I hope that future productions are a little less worshipful of the printed text, because this play would benefit from a few cuts here and there, to clarify the relationships between Pittsburgh and the South, and to tie up loose ends.
Given the enduring popularity of August Wilson's famous "20th-Century Cycle," it is puzzling that the Olney Theatre Center hasn't seen fit to stage any of them until now. Wilson's plays have been onstage for 35 years, and for the past 10 years Olney's artistic team has had the entire 10-play cycle to choose from. The days of Olney as a refuge for white summer stock--enshrined in production photos throughout the main lobby--are long gone. And they have clearly matured artistically and politically since the theatre's founding--coincidentally--in the 1930's. I look forward to seeing more of Wilson's Cycle at Olney in the future, and hope they will honor him with the main-stage productions he so richly deserves.
Running Time: 3 hours.
The Piano Lesson runs May 8- June 1 at the Olney Theatre , 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets call 301-924-3400 or log into: http://www.olneytheatre.org/ .
Pictured: Jon Hudson Odom as Lymon, Jonathan Peck as Doaker and Harold Surratt--seated--as Wining Boy. Photo by Stan Barouh.