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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE PIANO LESSON
at Pershing Square Signature Center

FAMILY STRIFE
By SANDY MACDONALD

  Brandon Dirden, Chuck Cooper and Jason Dirden/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Surely it’s no fluke that the Old Testament launches right into a tale of sibling strife. Scarcely has the human saga begun when Cain, envious, offs Abel. Since the dawn of time, family allegiances have been shadowed and tested by an equally strong legacy of intra-familial enmity.

In The Piano Lesson – the 1930s chapter in August Wilson’s masterful 10-play Century Cycle – Berniece (a powerfully restrained Roslyn Ruff) makes no secret of her contempt for her younger brother Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden), whom she views as a born troublemaker. Showing up pre-dawn at the orderly Pittsburgh household maintained by their uncle Doaker Charles (James A. Williams) for Berniece and her well-mannered 11-year-old daughter Maretha (unstagy Alexis Holt), Willie insists on rousting the entire family.

Willie’s partner in crime and disruption is his much gentler pal Lymon (played by Brandon Dirden’s real-life sibling, Jason Dirden), who is a classic second-in-command. Much as he might admire and abet – within reason – his friend’s agenda, Lymon is at worst naive and seems to have no gift for aggression.

Willie is pushing, pushing, pushing from the moment he arrives. He wants to sell the family-heirloom piano – left to him and Berniece – in order to buy a 100-acre tract that their slave forebears once worked. Like Cain, whose gifts God spurned, Willie is a farmer – of sorts. He’s a sharecropper, or was, until a skimming operation gone wrong landed him in jail.

The piano, carved with the portraits of Charles' ancestors, has a complicated history. Generations back, the white family whose land Willie covets sold off two of his forebears to acquire it. His grandfather engraved their likenesses, mourning the loss, and Willie and Berniece’s father died wresting it back.

Intent on honoring the piano’s history, Berniece is dead-set against letting Willie cash in. He insists, she resists, over and over – and along the way we learn more and more about the family dynamics that have led to this impasse.

One’s sympathies naturally lie with the multiply bereaved Berniece (Willie’s latest scheme rendered her a widow). However, Willie, initially unlikable, also presents a compelling case: The money they’d split (if he’s honorable about it, a questionable proposition) would enable him to take control of his life and build something of value – in other words, become an adult.

Among the bystanders drawn into the conflict are Avery (Eric Lenox Abrams), an ambitious fledgling preacher who sees in the emotionally frozen Berniece the makings of a suitable wife, and Doaker’s perennially broke elder brother Wining Boy (Chuck Cooper), an itinerant piano player so seduced by the high life that he can’t adjust to the fact that his glory days are long gone.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson whips the vectors of the characters’ conflicting objectives into a tempest that’s ultimately life-threatening. Coming 22 years after the Broadway original, which garnered both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, The Piano Lesson triumphs yet again in this spirited revival – further proof that Wilson was writing for the ages.

 


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