Boy Willie (Mark Christopher Lawrence) aims to score a piece of the family legacy, but his sister Berniece (Monique Gaffney) won't budge.
After the opening-night production of Cygnet Theatre Company's The Piano Lesson, actor Antonio Johnson said mounting August Wilson's work is “like diggin' ditches.” The local icon, who plays Doaker Charles in the show, could've added “all day, all night and with your bare hands” for emphasis. Catch hold of the late playwright's passion and blue-collar, take-no-prisoners eloquence on the black experience in America, and those ditches morph into bomb craters right before your disbelieving eyes.
Wilson may be tough to stage, but that only means he's left a ton and a half of potential production values in his wake. This show's a case in point: Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has drawn a nice bead on the characters' grassroots sense of community (which only looks like squabbling sometimes), and the cast works its collective ass off in exploiting it (there's a great scene in which four principals sing and dance to an old slave hymn, and “niggah” is both a term of endearment and a racial slam). Eventually, though, meat-and-potatoes treatments like these lead to a strange, dreamlike ending that would have been much more effective with a lot less tech. Add a serious misstep in fleshing out the lead character, and you have only a pretty good show. Greatness, it turns out, wasn't that far behind.
It's 1936, and Berniece (a brilliant Monique Gaffney) flatly refuses to play the family-heirloom piano in her Pittsburgh living room. Slaveholders traded some of the Charles kin for it, and to Berniece, the piece isn't so much an instrument as a legacy. Boy Willie, her sleazy brother, has other ideas. He wants to sell the piano so he can buy farmland—land ownership, he reasons, will make him the white man's equal for good. The flap gives way to casual jawboning among the menfolk; they hit on everything from the invention of the airplane to the birth of the blues. There's some terrific ensemble work here, with Laurence Brown leading the way as Lyman. Lyman's the most easygoing of the lot, and Brown is wonderfully unflappable in the role.
Sadly, the last 15 minutes lost me. They center on Boy Willie's tussle with Sutter, the unseen yet very real ghost who's watched over the Charleses since their slave days—and while I get that ghosts are a vital part of black American folklore, this climax looks like a stunt amid its melodramatic angst and its ear-splitting crash-boom-bang. It's unsupported by most everything that's come before, and subtler tech work would have played better on our imaginations.
I'm also not crazy about Mark Christopher Lawrence's work as Boy Willie. Lawrence is good here as a headstrong loudmouth with a chip on his shoulder the size of Pittsburgh's Grant Hill—but there's something mildly sociopathic, even evil, about this guy. Miss those nuances (as Sonnenberg did), and this show misses a lot of the mark (after all, Willie's the fella around whom the play revolves). I recommend this piece because it has its highly interesting moments, and it's your chance to see one of Wilson's 10 plays on the 20th-century black experience, but in some important areas, the cast's enthusiasm beats mine.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Jan. 30. The Piano Lesson runs through Feb. 28 at The Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town. $17-$49. www.cygnettheatre.com.