If August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” were a score, it would be a difficult one to transcribe. Darting from dreams to dogma and flitting from foppery to feeling, it is a work of delicate progressions. The Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production of the play, which officially opened Thursday and runs until Feb. 19, handles Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning text with great dexterity, hitting chords of emotion across all octaves of ordinary and not-so-ordinary life.
There’s a poetic touch to this particular staging: just as “The Piano Lesson” is returning to where it premiered in 1987, the play itself follows Boy Willie as he returns home and upsets the entire order of things.
Boy Willie is played frenetically and faithfully by LeRoy McClain MFA ’04, who moves with the vigor of someone born to a self-proclaimed “time of fire.” Yet when Boy Willie poignantly rants about his determination to “mark [his] passing on the road,” the audience knows they ought to give a damn about his character.
But the play is about far more than just Boy Willie; it is about his learning to feel for others. The central action begins with his plan to take away a piano that he owns with his sister Berniece (Eisa Davis) from where it has remained for many years, in his uncle Doaker’s (Keith Randolph Smith) house. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano off to buy land, Berniece wants to keep it as a reminder of the past she can’t escape and Doaker just wants to be left alone. It is a wonderful recipe for tension, one that by the end of the three-hour production the audience will have felt all too well.
Still, the play is not without levity, which comes in the form of Boy Willie’s accomplice Lymon (Charlie Hudson III), house-crasher Wining Boy (Charles Weldon), and neighborhood girl Grace (Joniece Abbott-Pratt). Local flavor mixes with touching naïveté in the way they interact with the other characters. It might well be Wilson’s design that the play is pitched at this register, but the actors deserve most of the credit here. Hudson, Weldon and Pratt have the buoyancy to carry the play forwards when necessary, and the sense to recede when the play modulates to a harsher tone.
The tension of the play finds its locus in Berneice, who Davis plays with mostly consistent control. She doesn’t care for the accoutrements of modern life – for her they are a din not worth listening to, and she raises her daughter Maretha (Malenky Welsh) to share her disdain. But Wilson shows us that this is impossible: the issues of race, identity and the frantic American pursuit of happiness are as pervasive in his day as in ours.
The production takes great joy in splicing and cutting up our preconceptions about friendships and family. Instability is a norm, whether in the seemingly solid relationship between Berneice and the local preacher, Avery (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), or in the strictly sexual one between Grace and Boy Willie. While Henderson is perhaps a tad too enthusiastic as Avery, it is not a problem amid all the other longstanding or ad-hoc connections that suffuse this play.
More troubling, however, is the keenness with which the Rep deploys special effects toward the more surreal tail end of the play. They are too much: farcically extravagant, they cloud the real action. But aside from this foible, director Liesl Tommy shapes her production into a melody that resonates in the mind and the heart.
Tommy’s vision is orchestrated well in tandem with DeDe Ayite’s MFA ’11 traditionally furnished house set. The carefully engraved piano is off to the side of the stage, marginalized, because placing it in the middle would be redundant, so strongly does it take center stage in Boy Willie’s mind.
Boy Willie is a dreamer, a modern man left feckless in an uncaring world. Yet in this world, he sticks in the audience’s minds long after they have walked out into the cold. The play leaves a warm lesson of the importance of feeling, the fracas of family life and the joy of playing the piano.