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Theatre in Review: The Piano Lesson (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

Michael Potts. Photo: Juliana Cervantes

There's quite a haunting going on at the Barrymore these nights, courtesy of LaTanya Richardson Jackson's revival of what may be August Wilson's best play. Although unseen, these shades are certainly felt thanks to the crack design team, and they are conjured in arias of unfailing gorgeousness. Many of Wilson's works have a spiritualist side, but in The Piano Lesson the specters of the past have a stranglehold on the present; until someone stares down the ghost who has invaded the skeletal, broken-up Pittsburgh house designed by Beowulf Boritt, nobody living there will have a moment's peace.

As is often the case in Wilson's plays, these citizens of Pittsburgh are emigrants from the South, part of the twentieth century's Great Migration, and, in many cases, the road has gotten into their bones, breeding a restlessness that isn't easily appeased. Doaker, a retired railroad man, lives quietly with his widowed niece Berniece and her young daughter Maretha but, around them, strange things are happening. Bursting in at 5am one morning is Boy Willie, Berniece's brother, and his friend Lymon, who have rolled into town from Mississippi with a truckful of watermelons. Selling them is one part of Boy Willie's plan to finance a purchase of farmland back home. The rest involves disposing of the piano sitting in Doaker's parlor, a move implacably opposed by Berniece.

The piano, co-owned by Berniece and Boy Willie, is an elaborate piece of woodcarving (courtesy of Doaker's grandfather) depicting key incidents, both ugly and joyous, from the family's tumultuous history. To Berniece, it is a tangible testament to their heritage, never to be surrendered. But Boy Willie sees it as a form of currency, a means of realizing a better future. Clearly, something's got to give.

To be sure, the piano is no sentimental heirloom: The carvings testify to a legacy of slavery that, in 1936 (the play's time frame) is still within living memory. (The events surrounding the instrument include a married couple separated in sale, a daring theft, arson, and the unsolved murder of Boy Willie and Berniece's father.) In a refutation of this past, Boy Willie's farm deal is with the Sutters, his ancestors' former owners. The holder of the farm's deed has just died under mysterious circumstances -- killed, Boy Willie claims, by ghosts in a long-running act of retribution -- but Berniece isn't sure that her brother wasn't involved. Then again, why does the ghost of Mr. Sutter appear to Berniece at the top of the stairs? And if Berniece is so determined to hold onto the piano, why can't she bring herself to touch it?

Wilson's plays are so loaded with complex backstories and lengthy, often hilarious, digressions (not to mention a song or two) that they sometimes threaten to veer off course altogether, but The Piano Lesson is strengthened by the powerful spine of the Berniece -- Boy Willie conflict. On the surface, theirs is a simple struggle between living in the past and planning for the future. But the complications are many -- not least because Berniece blames Boy Willie for the death of her beloved husband in a robbery gone bad. With this sibling dispute always simmering on the back burner, the playwright is free to give dazzling voice to a gallery of characters as they wrestle with a heritage of violence and oppression.

What to keep of the past, especially if the memories are so searing? What can be thrown away without losing something essential? These questions reverberate throughout The Piano Lesson and thanks to Richardson Jackson's direction, they acquire a fresh urgency. She gets plenty of help from her stars. John David Washington, prominent in film but new to theatre, delivers mightily as Boy Willie; perpetually on the hustle, his jumpy energy laced with anger, he provides the action with a necessary driving force. Against him, Danielle Brooks' Berniece is an unyielding fortress, a figure of fierce propriety whose brilliant smile withers away in the face of foolishness. As Doaker, Samuel L. Jackson keeps a cool, watchful eye on the proceedings, calling up the piano's tortured, Faulknerian roots with welcome lucidity and easily navigating the thick tangle of exposition that is the play's greatest challenge. (You also won't want to miss his description of the perfect ham hock, a fine example of Wilson's wittily descriptive writing.)

As capable as this trio is, they are nearly upstaged by three stunning supporting performances. Michael Potts tears into his speeches with gusto as Doaker's brother, Wining Boy, undone by too many years as an itinerant musician. ("You can't get enough whiskey and you can't get enough women and you don't never get tired of playing that piano. But that only last so long. You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, and you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that's all you got.") Trai Byers' powerful gift for oratory shines in the role of Avery, an elevator operator turned preacher with an eye on Berniece, who is enlisted to exorcise Sutter's ghost. As the none-too-bright, girl-crazy Lymon, Ray Fisher is a master of time-delayed deadpan responses; his slow-motion attempted seduction of Berniece is a comic-erotic delight. The great April Matthis has a uproarious cameo as a floozy who will accept either Boy Willie or Lymon for her evening's activities, depending on their availability.

Boritt's two-level set, rent apart in two places -- literally, a house divided against itself -- strikes exactly the right balance between naturalism and stylization. Japhy Weideman lights it with strongly directional looks that also accurately track each scene's the time of day. But when Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, the lighting turns ice-cold, and Scott Lehrer suffuses the stage with eerie sounds. Toni-Leslie James' typically period-perfect and detail-intensive costumes include a stunner of a red frock for Matthis' character, a startling contrast to Berniece's simple patterned day dresses.

This is the third production of The Piano Lesson that I've seen and, more than any other, I think it gets to the heart of Wilson's vision, his sense that only by embracing one's history, no matter how horrific, can one become free. For Berniece, that means finally sitting down to that piano. But never mind; she and her co-stars make beautiful verbal music all night long. --David Barbour

(3 November 2022)

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