Did August Wilson deliberately place The Piano Lesson in 1936, because that was the same Great Depression year Gone With the Wind was published? Did he intend it as a counter-balance to the version of slavery and its legacy depicted in Margaret Mitchell's best-seller?
Maybe, but probably not. Nevertheless, revived at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the fourth play in Wilson's ten works -- one for each decade -- exploring the lives and changing times of 20th-century African Americans has that sobering effect. Although The Piano Lesson wasn't necessarily composed fourth as Wilson was making his indelible and overwhelming contribution to theater annals, this one pointedly concerns a family living in the long shadow of the Civil War and its causes long after the Emancipation Proclamation has been -- well, "settled" isn't the right word, is it?
Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), living in the Pittsburgh Hill District home owned by her dead father's brother Doaker Charles (James A. Williams). has two prized possessions. The first is 11-year-old daughter Maretha (Alexis Holt). The second and seemingly almost as precious to Berniece is an heirloom piano on which portraits of her enslaved ancestors were long ago carved. The piano and how it changed hands and has long since been sorrowfully reclaimed by The Charles' haunts her -- not the least of the inhibiting memories her mother's daily polishing the piano's light wood.
As it happens, however, Berniece owns the carefully preserved upright -- which she has stopped playing for superstitious reasons -- with her brother Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden), a sometime thief whom she hasn't seen for three years but who has arrived from the South in a watermelon-laden truck with sidekick Lymon (Jason Dirden). He's planning to sell his cargo and then sell the piano in order to raise enough cash to buy land from a recently deceased ancestor of the family's slave-owner named Sutter.
The acreage Boy Willie has his eye on is available because Sutter recently died in a mysterious fall down a well. Berniece believes her brother pushed him and is confirmed in her suspicions when not only she but Uncle Doaker and Maretha see Sutter's ghost standing at the top of the stairs in their capacious house. (Michael Carnahan designed the impressive set but, of course, doesn't need to explain exactly why it's quite so capacious for that period in black history. Wilson might have accounted for that but doesn't.)
Throughout two electric acts, Wilson makes his focus the brother-sister conflict. He wants to find out who will be taught the lesson the pivotal piano teaches. And as strong as determined Berniece's argument is, the playwright doesn't see it as a one-sided matter. He takes care to provide the no less intractable Boy Willie with a case for his hijacking the physically heavy and symbolically heavy object. For one thing, Boy Willie regards owning the disputed land as payback for his forebears having worked it to no personal benefit. For another, he maintains that Berniece's refusal to play the piano means it's serving only meaningless "sentimental" ends.
While the infuriated siblings hassle and harangue, Wilson provides bustling life around them by including sometime blues pianist/frequent freeloader Wining Boy (Chuck Cooper) for what he has to offer either side of the argument but also for his musicianship and his amusingly sly ways of importuning loans. Aspiring preacher Avery (Eric Lenox Abrams) is on hand to court Berniece and set in bold relief the ways in which the three-year widow is holding on to the past (the piano, that is) when she needs to move on.
Lymon's naively adopting himself to big-city ways -- Wining Boy fobs an early zoot suit off on him for a few dollars -- is among the script's diversions. (Karen Perry supplied the wide-lapeled plaid wonder as well as some mighty fine saddle Oxfords for Berniece.) Also on view briefly is Grace (Mandi Madsen), a lady in red whom Lymon eyes during a night on the town but whom Boy Willie is the one to bring into Berniece's verboten realm one late night.
It's no surprise to theater-goers familiar with Wilson's plays that they're stuffed with action and verbiage. Among theaterati, he's famous, if not infamous, for writing more than he needs and, it seems, just as renowned for backing away from trimming his manuscripts. It appears that some shortening was carried on for this outing, but even at that many of the playwright's famous aria-like monologues could have withstood more judicious clipping-shears activity here and them.
On the other hand, the playwright was so enamored of his character's voices and their vitality, whether in the service of good or ill, that he continually transmits his love, hope and despair for them. They're so alive in the music of Wilson's language that patrons' missing out on anything they have to say or do seems imposing unnecessary deprivation.
Then there's Wilson's love of actual music, which is always a factor in his plays. Wilson simply can't stop himself from inserting songs sung or not sung in his works. Indeed, who'd want to lose the second act scene -- not entirely relevant to the proceedings -- where Wining Boy tickles those unused ivories and Boy Willie and Lymon dance?
With all the opportunities to represent the bursting life offered, actors must kiss the ground when cast to play these roles -- despite the requirements to learn numerous run-on speeches. (But rewarding ones, no question.) The members of this cast -- asked for every ounce of vigor they possess by Wilson player/director Ruben Santiago-Hudson -- give their all and then some. Every joy, every pain these 1930s denizens experience is set forth before the piano's fate is decided and the interloping ghost is or isn't revealed to be a figment of imaginations. For their dedications, thanks are due Ruff, whose surname might just as well be Ruff-and-Ready, both Dirdens and their complimentary feistiness, Cooper's gregarious Wining Boy and, well, every one of the eight hard workers.
The Piano Lesson sings whether or not Berniece, Boy Willie, Wining Boy or the others are actually making music. Wilson's lesson about the need for the past to be exorcised before contemplating a satisfying future remains urgent no matter how tenacious it is and for whatever pressuring reasons.