By John Quinn
A powerful voice in the American theater was silenced too soon when August Wilson, 60, died of liver cancer in 2005. But what a legacy he left us! His great achievement, the “Pittsburgh Cycle,” is a series of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. Through the struggles and triumphs of his unforgettable characters, he depicts the African-American experience within the broader culture. His political drive and gritty social realism puts him on the A-list of playwrights. The Performance Network is mounting his 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Piano Lesson,” a compelling drama of families, their heritage and legacies.
The plot is deceptively simple. It’s Pittsburgh in 1936. An elaborately carved piano sits in the home Berniece Charles shares with her Uncle Doaker and daughter Maretha. Her ne’er-do-well brother, Boy Willie, arrives from Mississippi demanding she sell their family heirloom. A sharecropper, he wants his half of the proceeds to buy the land their family once worked as slaves. But this is no ordinary piano. The carvings are their great-grandfather’s record of family history. It was the price of two ancestors sold in slavery. Its acquisition cost their father his life. Bernice plans to pass it along to Maretha and adamantly refuses to consider selling it. At its heart “The Piano Lesson” is the story of a sister and brother, one looking back, one looking forward; one embracing her heritage, one rejecting it.
Both blessed and cursed are actors in a Wilson play. Every character has a story – deep, rich and complex. But those stories are often told through pages-long monologues that tempt an audience to tune out if cast and director are not on their game. Director Tim Edward Rhoze and his tight ensemble hurdle that pitfall with ease. There is no theatricality in this production – there is instead a deep realism that is so satisfying when experienced in the theater. The performances are convincing and compelling. Of special note are Lisa Lauren Smith as protagonist Berniece and Brian Marable as antagonist Boy Willie. Like two opposite poles of a battery, the current of emotion flowing between them is electrifying. (I’m allowed one bad metaphor per column. Consider it done.)
Monika Essen’s set design is yet another success in a local season filled with remarkable technical work. Her realistic interior of a small house in the big city is an evocative depiction of Depression-era America. Far from being a one-trick pony, she has created costumes to match, largely in a muted palette of earth tones that form a background for stabs of vivid red and orange that complement the plot. Add properties designer Charlie Sutherland’s eclectic collection of period pieces and the illusion is complete.
Ultimately “The Piano Lesson” affirms the ties that bind families. Those ties may be straightjackets or lifelines, depending on your outlook. I think August Wilson came down positively for the latter.
‘The Piano Lesson’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through April 3. $27-$41. 734-663-0696. http://www.performancenetwork.org