Syracuse Stage’s ‘The Piano Lesson’ plays its doleful tune with virtuosity
Timothy Bond’s beautifully crafted production of the August Wilson play is buoyed by an ensemble of first-rate actors
Syracuse Stage’s new production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is a beautifully wrought, wonderfully acted rendition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. Every aspect of the dramatic experience comes together to near-perfection — from sets to costumes to lighting.
It’s been said that a great actor can read the phone book and bring her audience to tears. What happens, then, when a troupe of great actors is given great dialogue with which to engage the audience? You’ll have to see The Piano Lesson to find out. It’s no exaggeration to say that this superbly acted production will send shivers up your spine.
August Wilson is widely acknowledged as one of America’s great playwrights, and his skills are evident in this work. Wilson’s Century Cycle — a decade-by-decade chronicle of African American life in the 20th century, is one of America’s few masterworks. Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1936, The Piano Lesson tells the story of an African American family trying to come to grips with its past, and make sense of its future.
Berniece, originally from Mississippi, is trying to make a life for herself and her young daughter in the North. That life is disrupted by the sudden appearance of her brother, Boy Willie, who has made the journey north in order to sell the family heirloom, a hand-carved piano. He plans to use his share of the profits to buy the farmland his family once worked on while slaves. Berniece refuses to sell the piano, and the ensuing conflict drags in both family members and the community, threatening to rip them apart.
It’s important that the audience understand that for these characters, slavery is only three generations removed. For the characters in this story, the wounds of slavery and the Jim Crow era that followed are still fresh. Indeed, they are living with that history and all its traumas, mental, physical, and emotional — not only of their ancestors, but their own. (Life in the North may be easier, but is nevertheless wrought with perils and injustices).
The family history appears to be reflected within the piano, itself — carved by Berniece and Boy Willie’s great grandfather to chronicle the tragic loss of his wife and son to slavery in Georgia. The piano is haunted, both literally and figuratively.
August Wilson’s mastery of dialogue and character are apparent in every aspect of the play.
Set over the course of a few days inside the living room and kitchen of Uncle Doaker and Berniece’s house, the story unfolds ever so gradually — allowing the audience just enough information to follow the complex family history. Wilson sets up a dramatic dyad that places Berniece and Boy Willie into opposition. She cannot let go of her past. As another character in the play puts it, the past is a burden she carries with her, and only she can put it down.
Boy Willie, on the other hand, thinks only about the future. He’s willing to leave everything behind, including his family identity, in order to move forward toward an uncertain future. This tension, punctuated by moments of humor and pathos, builds slowly — putting into motion an emotional crescendo that will keep you on the edge of your seat during the entire final act.
The audience at Friday’s official opening production was fully engaged, responding with audible gasps, laughs, and spontaneous bouts of applause. This is especially impressive given that The Piano Lesson spans some three hours. It’s a testament to this troupe of actors that they can sustain this level of intensity this long and still allow the story to unfold so naturally.
Stephen Tyrone Williams is an energetic and enthusiastic Boy Willie. Though young, Boy Willie has learned the hard lessons of life as an African American trying to find his way in the world. He refuses to accept his lot in life while recognizing that he has a hard (if not near-impossible) road ahead. Williams brings this dichotomy of hope and resignation to life through his tone, delivery, and physical presence.
Erika LaVonn brings both a toughness and tender vulnerability to her character Berniece. This is a woman who is wounded and guarded, and LaVonn bring this out through her body language. But when Berniece slowly begins to open up we see a tenderness that is surprising, yet so human.
Derrick Lee Weeden as Doaker Charles and G. Valmont Thomas as Wining Boy threaten to steal the show with their wonderful musical voices and humor. Weeden’s basso profundo is simply breathtaking. As Lymon, Yaegel T. Welch brings a youthful enthusiasm and hope that complements Williams’s Boy Willie, and Welch plays beautifully off LaVonn’s Berniece during the pair’s intimate exchange in Act Three.
Ken Robinson, playing the preacher Avery, simultaneously reveals to the audience his jubilation with being “called by the lord” and the pain that comes with his unrequited love for Berniece. When Robinson preaches, his supporting character takes full and center stage.
Marcea Bond, though having the fewest lines in the play, is a charming Maretha and — surprisingly for someone so young — she is able to produce some blood-curdling screams that gave me goose bumps. Likewise, Allison Strickland brings a sense of energy and humor to her representation of another supporting character, Grace.
As a playwright, Wilson has been driven to portray aspects of the African American experience and sing the ballad of African American life in the 20th century. His genius as a dramatist is that he accomplishes this through characters that are fully human and psychologically credible. His audiences, regardless of background and knowledge of history, are likely to recognize these characters as fundamentally human, and as such they care about, and feel, for them.
Doaker, for example, has an ex-wife living in New York. From a technical standpoint, this can be considered backstory that provides this character a past — even if we don’t know what that is. Through Bond’s direction and Weeden’s delivery, though, these few lines reveal pain and longing that an audience can relate to, transcending distance, time, age, gender and race.
Hats off to Timothy Bond, the company’s producing artistic director, for bringing all the pieces of Wilson’s drama together into a beautifully crafted, organic whole. Syracuse Stage has indeed set the bar high with its production of The Piano Lesson.
What: The Piano Lesson, written by August Wilson and directed by Timothy Bond
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse , NY
Performance reviewed: Oct. 24, 2014
Remaining performances: Plays through Nov. 9
Length: About 3 hours, including one intermission
Tickets: Adults $30-$54; 18 and under $18; 40 and under $30-$35; senior discounts all performances except Fri./Sat. P.M.
Call: 315-443-3275 or syracusestage.org
Family guide: Potentially offensive language and adult themes