“The Piano Lesson”
Hartford Stage is currently presenting a generally excellent, extremely well-acted presentation of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” I was lucky enough to see the original Broadway production of “The Piano Lesson,” back in 1990, and it remains one of the most joyous times I have ever had in the theatre. If Hartford Stage’s production is not quite at that same level, it is still deeply satisfying. As skillfully directed by Jade King Carroll, the beauty and poetry of the playwright’s words are richly apparent and, even though the running time of the show is about three hours, the play remains interesting and enthralling throughout. Whether you are newcomer to “The Piano Lesson” or have seen this play before, this production at Hartford Stage is certainly worth checking out.
The main conflict in “The Piano Lesson,” which takes place in 1936, is between siblings Berniece (the superb Christina Acosta Robinson) and Boy Willie, well played by the rambunctious Clifton Duncan, over what to do with the piano that has been handed down to them by their mother. That piano is the main focus of the beautiful set design by Alexis Distler and one can see just how majestic the piano truly is. There is much talk by Boy Willie about selling the piano, but Berniece is fiercely against it leaving her home, with the desire that it remain a family heirloom.
I would hate to give any more of the plot away, since there are so many fascinating elements and scenes in this show, including those of a distinctly ghostly nature. Suffice it is to say that August Wilson has written great characters in this play and the company of actors do full justice to them. As Boy Willie, Clifton Duncan is very good at providing the friction in the show and, even though I missed the larger than life creator of this role, Charles S. Dutton, Clifton Duncan brings plenty of new shadings to this character. As his sister, Berniece, Christina Acosta Robinson is a figure of strength throughout the play, though she also allows the audience to see some of her vulnerabilities, as well.
In supporting roles, Roscoe Orman gives a crisp performance as Doaker, Boy Willie and Berniece’s uncle, and Orman provides the link to the family’s history, representing the previous generation. Galen Ryan Kane is superb as Boy Willie’s friend Lymon and Daniel Morgan Shelley is likewise expert as Avery, who aims to become a preacher, and there are charming scenes where he tries to court Berniece. As Berniece’s young daughter, Maretha, Elise Taylor is just about ideal and Toccarra Cash does well as Grace, a character who arrives late in the play.
Not to play favorites, but it is especially good to see Cleavant Derricks, who won a Tony Award for “Dreamgirls” in 1982, as Doaker’s wily friend, Wining Boy. Derricks plays this part as a very smooth operator, and it is terrific to see him perform songs during the show, sounding just as great today as he did in “Dreamgirls” over thirty years ago. It should be mentioned that August Wilson incorporates much music into the play, especially in a group song shared among four of the male characters, and Wilson’s words themselves add a lyrical nature to the show, as well.
Hartford Stage’s production of “The Piano Lesson” is topnotch in just about all departments, with Toni-Leslie James’ costume design and York Kennedy’s lighting design blending seamlessly into the show. Director Jade King Carroll works wonderfully well with the designers, as well as her superlative cast of actors. Though some audience members may be put off by the three hour running time of the show, “The Piano Lesson” is filled with so much energy and spirit and richly textured moments that the time just flies by. “The Piano Lesson” at Hartford Stage is highly recommended, if only as a reminder of just how great a playwright August Wilson was to the American Theatre.
“The Piano Lesson” continues performances at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through November 13, 2016. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.
Photo (L-R): Clifton Duncan, Christina Acosta Robinson, and Roscoe Orman
Photo by T. Charles Erickson