The handsome piano that sits in the living room of the Charles family’s Pittsburgh home in “The Piano Lesson” is more than just decoration: Several characters play it in the course of the play.
But it’s also more than just a piano.
To Boy Willie (played by Stephen Tyrone Williams) — who is visiting home from the South, where he is now working — it is the key to a better life: He wants to sell it and use the money to help to him buy some land.
To his sister Berniece (played by Miriam A. Hyman), it’s an heirloom that connects her to the family’s often troubled past, and she wants to hold onto it, no matter what. “Money can’t buy what that piano cost,” she insists.
That’s the central conflict of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is part of his “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays, each one set in a different decade of the 20th century (this one is in the 1930s). And it’s an ingenious one because both characters are right, in their own way. One just wants to honor the past; the other, to transcend it.
The play — grounded in painful reality, but also connected to the supernatural — is currently at the McCarter Theatre Center, in a rock-solid version with stellar actors such as Tony winner Cleavant Derricks and Tony-nominated John Earl Jelks. The best thing about it, I thought, was Williams’ fiery presence as Boy Willie. The worst: The cast’s tendency, especially in the first act, to rush though dialogue, instead of letting every one of Wilson’s words resonate. I sometimes wished that director Jade King Carroll had encouraged everyone to slow down a bit, though that would have made a fairly long play (this production runs about two and a half hours, with an intermission) even longer.
Derricks makes a great rascal — charming but also self-aware, and a bit sad — in the role of Wining Boy (Berniece and Boy Willie’s uncle). And a scene in which Berniece — who is a widow, and the mother of an 11-year-old daughter — contemplates getting romantically involved with Boy Willie’s friend Lymon (played by David Pegram) is a mini-masterpiece of sustained tension.
“The Pittsburgh Cycle” does not have to be seen chronologically, of course. And this is a very good place to start.
“The Piano Lesson” is at the McCarter Theatre Center’s Berlind Theatre through Feb. 7; visit mccarter.org.
Note: Not in Our Town Princeton, a social action group that works for the cause of racial justice, is collaborating with the theater on a post-show “community conversation” in the Berlind rehearsal room, following the play’s 3 p.m. Feb. 6 performance. According to a press release, the event is intended “to provide an opportunity for interested audience members to engage with one another in a conversation that focuses specifically on the story of ‘The Piano Lesson’ as an articulation of black American experience through which issues and themes pertaining to race, racism, and racial oppression and injustice can be shared and explored for meaning and understanding.” For information, niotprinceton.org.