Following on Sam Shepard’s Heartless (see my ROT report on 10 September), the first offering of the Signature Theatre Company’s Legacy Program for 2012-13, my frequent theater companion Diana and I were again at the Irene Diamond Stage of the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row for the 7:30 performance of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on Friday evening, 7 December. I’ve seen a number of Wilson’s decology plays (I seem to have missed two, 1988’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Radio Golf from 2005), but the only presentation of Piano Lesson I’d seen was the 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast on CBS; I’d never seen Wilson’s 1987 play on stage. (Not that the TV version was a lightweight presentation: it was directed by Wilson’s long-time collaborator, Lloyd Richards, and starred Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard, and Courtney B. Vance, among others.)
The fourth play in Wilson’s 10-play cycle of the 20th-century African-American experience, The Piano Lesson premièred at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, on 26 November 1987. Directed by Richards, who was artistic director of Yale Rep and head of the Yale School of Drama, the production starred Samuel L. Jackson as Boy Willie. The Yale Rep staging moved on to the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, where it opened on 9 January 1988 with Dutton replacing Jackson as the male lead. Richards then directed the play on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre where it opened on 16 April 1990, running until 27 January 1991 (328 performances) and winning the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1990 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, plus garnering several nominations including four Tonys. (The TV adaptation won the 1995 Peabody Award and received two Emmy nominations.) Signature’s revival, the first in New York since the Broadway outing, started previews on 30 October and opened under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a frequent force in Signature seasons, on 18 November; it’s scheduled to close now on 30 December, including one extension from 9 December.
Wilson always professed that he was much inspired by blues music and the art of Romare Bearden, and the great collagist created a picture called The Piano Lesson in 1983 that moved the dramatist to write a play focusing on a strong female character for his depiction of African-American history in the 1930s. Constanza Romero, the writer’s widow, said, “In the painting, The Piano Lesson, there is a figure of a mother standing over a small girl playing the piano. August thought the girl was perhaps doing her scales and heard the mother say, ‘Play it again, Maretha.’ This was the genesis of the play”; and Andrea Allinger, a freelance writer, quotes Wilson on the August Wilson Blog as saying to a friend upon viewing Bearden’s Piano Lesson, “This is my next play,” and the writer was already speaking lines from it the next day. According to Allinger, both artists used the technique of collage, “a melding of materials,” to draw their portraits, and the playwright gave “voices and stories to the characters Bearden created in his collages.” Wilson’s widow confirmed that she “saw a parallel between August’s and Romare Bearden’s work,” explaining that “they were both collagists. August would start with an image, or with some dialogue, then would start writing what he heard in his mind.” Others have also noted that Wilson composed by combining bits and pieces of found images, observed or overheard around him; pieces of his biography; cultural and ethnic history; Pittsburgh lore and color; researched facts and events; influences from art and music; and flights of imagination.
Blues figures in the play a great deal, too, as all the men harmonize on a prison farm work song and one character, Wining Boy, a semi-professional musician—a pianist and singer, wouldn’t you know—sits at the titular instrument and knocks out a gorgeous blues riff he’d composed for his lost love. Furthermore, the characters all speak in what the title character in Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) calls “life's way of talking.” Bearden’s art and the rhythms and themes of the blues run through Piano Lesson like the veins and arteries of a human body. The actual songs and piano-playing aside, The Piano Lesson is as much a piece of music, from the lyrical prose to the dancelike movement of the actors, as a piece of writing. We’ll see that many of the reviewers wrote of the musicality of the script and the conductor-like efforts of director Santiago-Hudson.
Wilson’s play is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh of 1936, in the house of Doaker Charles. A 137-year-old, upright piano, decorated with carvings in the manner of African sculpture, is the focus of the parlor. Boy Willie, Doaker’s nephew, arrives at the door, accompanied by his friend Lymon and a truckload of watermelons he intends to sell. Boy Willie wants to raise enough money to buy some farmland back home in Mississippi—the Charles family is split by the Great Migration, in full swing at this time—and not have to work as a tenant or a hired hand anymore. He realizes that if he also sells the piano, his share of the family heirloom will give him enough cash to buy the land on which his forefathers worked as slaves and sharecroppers, but his sister Berniece, who lives in Doaker’s house with her 11-year-old daughter, doesn’t want to part with the piano, which depicts (and represents) their family’s history. (The piano had actually been the property of the slave-holder who owned Boy Willie and Berniece’s great-grandparents and grandfather; the land Boy Willie wants was owned by the deceased descendant of the same family.) The struggle, both within Boy Willie and between him and Berniece, is the lesson that the piano has to teach.
The Piano Lesson isn’t just about an heirloom piano or even the story of one family stretching back into the 18th century. As Michael Feingold put it in the Village Voice: “Wilson never did anything superficially,” and Constanza Romero said, “If there’s one unifying theme in August’s plays it is the question, . . . how can we go forward without confronting and embracing the past?” Wilson is demonstrating how history can haunt people for generations as the accumulated effluvia of life adds to the load each person carries. (There’s even an actual spirit that may or may not be hanging around the Charles house, attached somehow to that piano.) While Berniece adamantly holds onto the family past as represented by the piano, which she no longer will play, and its carved images of her forebears, Boy Willie believes that those ancestors intended them to move up, to improve their lot, and that buying the land where his family worked as slaves and sharecroppers and becoming his own man, a farmer on his own land, is a step he has to take and that their father meant the piano to be a means to that worthy end. Berniece came to a strange place (Lymon constantly remarks how different things are up north) and established a new and different life, but Boy Willie wants to stay down south—Lymon is staying, but Willie’s going back by train—and do what he knows how to do: farm.
The specter of the family past—the sale by the planter of the great-grandmother and nine-year-old grandfather (“one-and-a-half slaves”) to buy the piano; the carving of their images into the instrument by the great-grandfather, left behind; the murder of Boy Willie and Berniece’s father (Doaker and Wining Boy’s brother) after he stole “back” the piano; the violent death of Crawley, Berniece’s husband (which she blames on Boy Willie); the splitting of the family again by the Great Migration; the mysterious death of the farmland-owner and descendant of the slave-holder—comes to Doaker’s house and turns up the heat until the pot boils over. Though both siblings—Doaker basically remains neutral and plays referee—behave recalcitrantly, they each have a lot of right in their positions. Berniece came north to escape the poverty and the Jim Crow oppression that was not only cruel but dangerous but wants to keep a connection to the family past that was so often interrupted and severed but which has kept them all linked for generations despite geographical separation. Boy Willie needs to advance his status, to start a real life of his own and he wants to do it where his roots are, where he feels he belongs and not be forced to choose between being someone else’s hireling or settling somewhere 1,800 miles away to take up an alien life. (Lymon, also a farm boy, is looking at working at loading boxcars in a rail yard.) But to resolve the impasse, one side has to give up a cherished desire. The ghost of slavery has to be exorcised. Man, can there be anything more dramatic than that?
The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood’s review on 19 November was as close to a full-on rave as I’ve seen in a long time (“one of the best shows in town,” he wrote) and the STC Legacy revival measures up entirely to the reviewer’s estimation. First, the production is excellent, from the acting, which is doubtlessly some of the best ensemble work I’ve ever seen, especially from an American company, to the directing to the design (the set is a wondrous naturalistic fragment). Then the script is one of Wilson’s best, less narratively diffuse and more structurally solid than most of the other nine plays in the so-called American Century Cycle. The two-acter still runs 2¾ hours because the writer goes off on several tangents (delightful though they are), but for Wilson, this is tight writing. The result is one of the best evenings I’ve spent in the theater that I can remember. (Am I a wuss if I confess here that the performance was so theatrically moving that I teared up more than once at the sheer beauty of the art, and that I, who usually forgo the now-ubiquitous standing ovation, got to my feet at the end along with nearly everyone else? Well, I guess I’ll just have to accept that.)
The ensemble acting of the company has to be largely the responsibility of Santiago-Hudson, starting with his casting. I’ve seen this director’s work many times now, including another Wilson revival at STC, the 2006 Seven Guitars (a play for which he also won a Tony as an actor in the 1996 Broadway première), and I noted then that the cast displayed extraordinary ensemble work. Clearly, whether consciously or unconsciously, Santiago-Hudson, who’s accomplishments as an actor may have something to do with this, is adept as communal stage work of this nature. It was just fantastic to watch. In addition, from what I’ve read, the earlier stagings of Piano Lesson employed over-obvious effects to depict the spookiness that reaches a crescendo at the end of act two, but this director keeps the SpFX to a minimum. (Don’t misread me: I think the whole apparition/poltergeist element—lights that go on and off by themselves, a piano that plays itself and will not be lifted off the floor, doors that slam on their own—is overdone, but that’s in the script to a degree. Santiago-Hudson has apparently gotten more literal than Wilson indicated, however.) Although Wilson’s side trips and diversions attenuate the play, Santiago-Hudson handles them nicely, keeping them organic and bringing the characters smoothly back from them into the play’s main narrative. You just have to go on a little walkabout through Wilson-land.
Michael Carnahan’s set is magnificent, the living room, kitchen, staircase, and upstairs landing of Doaker’s house, with the outer siding visible at stage left and the skeleton of the roof seen above the ceiling. Bits of the neighboring houses loom next door. When I entered the auditorium, I couldn’t stop examining the stage picture, which looks like a sort of expressionistic cut-away of a home—not as if someone had sliced off the back like a doll house, but torn it off like a tornado had passed by. It’s a house that’s either disintegrating or reforming. The clothes by Karen Perry are both period-perfect and right on for the characters and situation. I especially liked the suits and shoes Wining Boy brings along and ends up selling to Lymon. (Lymon’s probably half Wining Boy’s size, but the sales job Wining Boy does is priceless, so the scene as acted and staged makes the costume aspect all the more marvelous.) The countrified attire in which Lymon and Boy Willie arrive contrasts meaningfully with the city duds adopted by Berniece, Wining Boy, and the other residents of Pittsburgh.
The lighting in The Piano Lesson needs to be more than just atmospheric and mood-setting. Even aside from the occult effects, first suggested and later fully displayed, the way Doaker’s house is lit or not lit is as significant to the dramatics as Perry’s costumes. What happens in the dark is important and designer Rui Rita knows exactly how to manipulate the illumination. The music, composed by Bill Sims Jr., is equally important as it establishes the meaningfulness of music, particularly work songs and blues, which is woven into the fabric of the lives of the Charles family and the world from which they come. David Van Tieghem did the overall sound design and, with Sims, creates what TheaterMania called “a haunting aural atmosphere.” I can’t think of a stage performance where the physical production is as much an integral part of the play’s dramatic heft and impact as it is here. We’ve probably all read descriptions of productions in which the writers asserted that “the set’s a character” or “the sound is like another character,” and I’m sure that’s been true; I’ve even written it myself, I’m sure. But I don’t remember seeing a show where all the technical elements were like that. Of course, I probably wouldn’t feel this way if they didn’t all work in tandem so perfectly as they do at STC.
I’ve delayed writing about the acting because I don’t really know what to say about individual performers. I’ve already gotten effusive about their work together, but the problem with that kind of collaboration is that it makes it hard to speak of each actor on her or his own. But I’ll try. A superb physical actor, Brandon J. Dirden, bursting with unbounded enthusiasm and hope, completely inhabits the impulsiveness and stubbornness of Boy Willie; I felt the strength of his pursuit of his dream, the sincerity of his belief that that’s what his father wanted for him. He seems selfish (as, in fact, does Berniece), but because Dirden is steadfast in his sense of his own correctness, he convinced me of it, too. As sister Berniece, Roslyn Ruff is as fierce as Brandon Dirden’s Boy Willie, but sterner, more closed off, harder-edged. There’s a glimmer of the softer person she’s walling off, but Ruff is unbending and determined, though far from unsympathetic. To say, however, that these performances stand out is to be unfair to the rest of the troupe, though Brandon Dirden and Ruff set the standard for the company.
There’s a sadness in Boy Willie’s friend Lymon as played by Jason Dirden (Brandon’s brother), a loneliness that made me understand why he’d want to stay in Pittsburgh and start over, remake himself. (The play’s largely about people remaking themselves in some way.) Though he scampers around Boy Willie like a puppy, he also feels the tentative start of an attraction to Berniece, as if the boy were becoming a man. As the calm center of the Charles storm, James A. Williams as Doaker made me feel that he’s not only seen it all before, but that he knows how it’s going to come out. All he has to do is keep Berniece and Boy Willie from killing each other first. He seems pretty sure he can do that, too. (Williams is the only actor I recognize as having seen before: as Mr. M, the teacher in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! at STC in May. See my report posted on 11 June. He comes off to better effect here.) In truth, however, all the actors acquit themselves superlatively, from Chuck Cooper’s Wining Boy, the itinerant sometime-musician who drops in that incredible blues number (and he’s funny, too), to Eric Lenox Abrams, the sincere and earnest preacher who’s trying to court Berniece, to Alexis Holt’s little Maretha, Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter.
The Times’s Isherwood characterized The Piano Lesson as “a generous gift,” an “immensely satisfying show,” “emotionally sustaining great theater,” and a “savory theatrical feast.” As strongly as I feel about this production, I could never match the Timesman’s effusiveness. In his words, Wilson’s writing has “the breadth and majesty of great symphonies” and the company delivers it with “commitment and artistry.” Isherwood summed up the theatrical experience by asserting that “you never want the sweet, sad music to end.”
Elsewhere in the press, Joe Dziemianowicz in New York’s Daily News wrote that The Piano Lesson “strikes a major chord” in Santiago-Hudson’s “note-perfect staging” realized by an “impeccable” cast and “deft designers” who “mine the riches of this resonant drama.” The News reviewer noted that the script’s “overwritten” (a complaint several other reviews made), but that the production is otherwise “a fine-tuned vision.” In the New York Post, Frank Scheck praised the “sterling revival” of a “deeply moving work.” “The play is filled with emotionally resonant moments,” noted Scheck. Though he also remarked on the overwriting, he found the “gripping” production “superbly staged and acted.” Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday confessed that she always saw The Piano Lesson as “one of the lesser, more conventional” of Wilson’s works, but that the STC revival “reveals this as richer and more emotionally complete than ever before.” Dubbing the production “first-rate,” Santiago-Hudson’s direction “meticulous,” and the cast “splendid,” Winer asked at the end of her notice: “What good is a legacy?” Her response? “This revival is its own answer.” The Voice’s Feingold, characterizing the play as “remarkable,” found the STC remount “better unified in tone than the Broadway original” and Terry Teachout pronounced the production “magnificent” in the Wall Street Journal, with “taut and disciplined” staging and “sumptuous” acting from a “sublime” cast.
In New York magazine, Scott Brown described STC’s “joyous revival” of The Piano Lesson as “concerted, conducted, and focused.” With “unforgettable performances from a flawless cast,” the production “pulses with magic, ecstasy, pain, and (forgive me) spirit,” he reported. Brown’s final recommendation is: “I’d advise you to commune with” the performance. David Cote of Time Out New York dubbed the play a “grand drama” that “reaches operatic intensity.” The production’s “impeccable ensemble” realizes “Wilson’s polyphonic, novelistic voice,” the man from TONY declared, concluding that “there’s much lovely, haunting music to be savored here, played by an exquisite ensemble.”
Clifford Lee Johnson III of Back Stage characterized the play as “a theatrical whirlwind” which is being staged in a “welcome revival” presented by a “sterling cast.” As Johnson saw it, Santiago-Hudson “conducts the play as much as he stages it” and though the play has imperfections, the Back Stage review-writer concluded they are “only slight blemishes on a powerful production.” In Variety, Marilyn Stasio opened her notice by asking: “What have we done to deserve a magnificent revival like the new Signature Theatre production of ‘The Piano Lesson’?” Describing Santiago-Hudson’s directing as “flawless” and the acting “brilliant,” Stasio proclaimed that the STC revival “makes this 1987 play live and breathe and sing for a new generation.”
On the ’Net, Dan Bacalzo wrote on TheaterMania that STC’s “top-notch cast does justice to Wilson's well-defined characters and lyrical language” in “a superlative revival,” and on CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman called the production “a stirring revival” for which Santiago-Hudson establishes a “chillingly spectral atmosphere” through “keenly focused direction” that addresses “the emotionally visceral changes” through which the Charles family and friends go. On TalkinBroadway.com, Matthew Murray pronounced The Piano Lesson “a mostly superb new revival” in a “brutally gutsy and realistic rendering” by director Santiago-Hudson. Though Murray saw the play as “the clearest statement of Wilson's ethos,” he nonetheless felt that “cracks begin to show a bit on the more detailed and human level” because of the “lack of impassioned monologues” (an estimation, by the way, with which I don’t agree). He acknowledged, however, that “the lapses are so minor . . . that the overall impact of the production is barely lessened” due to the “tight rein” of the director who “knows just what notes to hit.” The Web reviewer concluded by affirming that Wilson’s people “have rarely . . . been rendered more melodious than in this version of The Piano Lesson.”
The New Yorker’s Hilton Als was the lone outlier. Though he acknowledged the “imaginative force” in Santiago-Hudson’s staging and declared that “there is not one false note among” the “excellent cast,” Als complained that “Wilson tips the balance by adding more blackness to blackness” so that the playwright “enslaves the characters who we’re watching to a historical blackness that should be part of the character’s interiority.” This situation arises from a “problem with ‘ethnic’ theatre” the New Yorker writer perceives so “that the marginalized people on display . . . tend to get more ethnic once they step in front of the footlights,” and he felt that this fault diminished “a fine enough dramatic premise.” I’m not entirely sure what Als means by all this, but if it’s generally true at times, I never felt it was a hindrance in STC’s The Piano Lesson.