Hartford Stage: August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson ranks among the great American plays. Surprisingly, Hartford Stage was not packed last Friday night and during intermission many audience members headed for their cars. Maybe the cast just had an off night, or the pace was off enough that it drained most of the excitement in this otherwise riveting play.
Wilson, known for creating a 10-play cycle, each one representing a decade of African American life in the 20th Century, won a Pulitzer Prize for this work set in the 1930s. Boy Willie and his sister Berniece have different needs for the family legacy, a hand-carved piano. Boy Willie wants to sell it so he can purchase a farm and Berniece wants to keep it as a family heirloom. For a black man to own his own cotton farm in the 1930s would have been quite a coup, but that piano represents the entire family history since the faces of all the relatives, all long gone, have been permanently etched on this finely polished instrument. One possible question of many that can be raised in this play is: Is it right to sacrifice a man’s future to hold onto a piece of family history? Another question is: Is it right to let go of a family’s legacy for something that could prove to be nothing more than a pipe dream?
There’s more at stake here than just the worth of the piano. Wilson did his own carving with his sharp pen sketching black history in realistic characterizations. Every character in this play is thoroughly conceived. All eight of them capture the soul of what it meant to be black during this period of time. The true lesson of this play is that family and friendships are the heart and soul of all people. They are universal themes that play out in every genre and every age. August Wilson, who insisted on all black casts and all black theater in spite of the color-blind trend, introduces us to the family and friends of Boy Willie and Berniece. He also includes a minister and a ghost in this play. Though they both emphasize the spiritual connection to the black community, the ghost actually helps determine the final outcome.
Directed by Jade King Carroll at a slow and steady pace, the cast follows suit. Roscoe Orman, whom many quickly recognize from his appearances on “Sesame Street” takes on the role of Doaker, uncle to Boy Willie and his sister. His performance is less than memorable in spite of one scene when he actually kicks up his heels. Clifton Duncan plays Boy Willie and is the spunkiest member of this cast along with Wining Boy played with spirit by Cleavant Derricks.
Christina Acosta Robinson plays such an understated Berniece that her character often fades into a scene. Galen Ryan Kane as Boy Willie’s friend Lymon is as steadfast as Daniel Morgan Shelley who plays Avery. The latter is the reverend in love with Berniece. However, Shelley’s performance belies his words of love. Toccarra Cash offers a flash of excitement as Grace, Boy Willie’s one night stand. Happily, Waterbury’s own Elise Taylor as Maretha, Berniece’s young daughter, is bright and shines in the spotlight. She offers a breath of freshness to this rather tiresome production.
Even the ghost scene, which features flashing lights and heightened stage effects fails to peak, especially since Boy Willie just dusts himself off and moves on after the encounter. As to what actually happens to that piano, that’s something that the theater-goers must discover for themselves.
Set designer Alexis Distler creates a warm and inviting two level home complete with kitchen, living room and a fine staircase. Costume designer Toni-Lesie James couldn’t have picked a more perfect purple silk suit for Lymon who is determined to meet some women. Berniece’s robe is quite attractive and Wining Boy’s outfit quite appropriate. Hopefully, this was just an off night. This is truly one of this reviewer’s favorite plays and one of August Wilson’s most brilliant. The play is the thing here and unfortunately, the production disappointing. It plays through Nov. 13. Box office: 860-527-5151.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org