Like it or not, every family has its traditions, its heritage. But sometimes traditions have to be called into question. Court Theatre’s The Piano Lesson is a rich family drama that explores the difficulties of confronting a family legacy that just won’t stay in the past. With an elaborate-yet-welcoming set and a cast of infectious characters, director Ron OJ Parson’s production offers an energetic and thoughtful treatment of August Wilson’s script, interjected with a fun and gritty sense of humor and a touch of the supernatural.
Boy Willie Charles, an ambitious young man from Mississippi, and his friend Lymon have come up to Pittsburgh after a three-year stint in Parchman Prison Farm with a truckload of watermelons to sell. They stop along the way at Boy Willie’s uncle Doaker’s home, where Boy Willie reunites with his sister Berniece. But it soon becomes apparent that Boy Willie isn’t interested in selling just watermelons. He tells Doaker that Sutter, the son of the family who used to own the Charles family as slaves, mysteriously fell down a well. Now he plans to buy Sutter’s land using his savings, the profit from the watermelons, and the money he could get for selling the prized Charles family heirloom—a beautiful old upright piano. Berniece refuses to let Boy Willie sell it. Things get even more complicated when Berniece encounters the ghost of Sutter, who’s looking for Boy Willie for unknown reasons.
As the action rises and the tension deepens between Berniece and Boy Willie, the history of the piano is slowly revealed, leading to revelations about the family’s current circumstances. The conflict is no longer about selling an heirloom, but rather about the meaning of heritage, and to what extent it should rule the lives of the family. It becomes apparent through the play’s numerous subplots that there is more to the piano than just carvings, and more to Boy Willie and Berniece’s relationship than sibling squabbling.
Set in 1936, The Piano Lesson takes place in Doaker Charles’s rustic Pittsburgh home. The house’s warm colors and lighting, along with the detailed set dressings of pictures, dishes, and a fully stocked pantry, communicate the feeling of home comfort to the audience. However, the presence of Sutter’s ghost, never seen by the audience, adds a definite level of uneasiness. He asserts himself by making the set come alive, dimming the lights and spontaneously opening doors and drawers.
The action in The Piano Lesson is energetic and frequently rowdy, so the characters cannot be timid. The cast works together almost flawlessly to produce brilliant, absorbing ensemble work, even in the midst of the production’s tensest moments. Ronald Conner and Brian Weddington, as Boy Willie and Lymon, respectively, form an excellent physical duo. Their mutual energy and frequent roughhousing keep any scene they’re in from dragging. A.C. Smith brings a stoic professionalism to the character of Doaker, making him reasonable and reserved, a straight-faced counterpoint to Boy Willie’s boyish antics.
But it is Alfred H. Wilson in the role of Doaker’s brother Wining Boy who really captures the heart of the audience. While his character does not directly affect the plot, he constantly relieves the tension with his humor or thoughtfulness. As a washed-up recording star, alcoholic, and wandering piano man, Wining Boy is transformed into a loveable trickster and fun-loving boy by Wilson’s hands. Afterwards, he gets us moving with blues interludes played on the historic piano that punctuates both the touching and humorous moments of the play, elevating them to pure poetry.
The Piano Lesson is a true drama; the humor in it comes from the superb acting, not the script. As the play winds up to its frightening, supernatural climax, we find ourselves hoping that Boy Willie, Lymon, Berniece, Doaker, all manage to find a way out of their struggle and reconcile their family history with their own relationships. Living in the home of the Charles family for this short period of time leaves the audience not only with a love of this family, but also with a greater appreciation for the weight of a family’s heritage.