August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is part of several larger histories. It’s the fourth installment of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle – a series that chronicles a century of African-American history (this one is set 1936). And The Piano Lesson – the whole Pittsburgh Cycle, really – is ample evidence that Wilson belongs to the tradition of great American playwrighting.
Like other writers in that tradition – O’Neill, Williams, Miller among them – Wilson starts from a perspective of realistic family drama, and builds beyond it. In the case of The Piano Lesson, that includes introducing music and stylized dance moves in the narrative (there’s a showstopping example late in Act I), and the presence of ghosts. Even more centrally, major themes and images – a truck load of watermelons, trains and travel, and especially the titular piano – are simultaneously part of the play’s real world, and powerful metaphors for Wilson’s bigger picture. (It felt like no accident that I saw this production on MLK weekend.)
It all plays out in The Piano Lesson through a timeless conflict along mostly generational lines. In Doaker Charles’s Pittsburgh home, a pair of recently arrived young male relatives – Boy Willie and Lymon – pursue upward mobility through deal-making. After unloading the watermelons, Boy Willie intends to sell the family piano. The elder branch of the family (including Doaker and Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece), are a more conservative, less ambitious bunch. Berniece is particularly set against selling the piano – she knows how much of the painful family legacy is attached to it.
As all this suggests, The Piano Lesson is large-scale play, personal but also steeped in a harrowing and turbulent history. Occasionally, Wilson’s writing turns didactic, and the characters start to feel more like archetypes than individuals. But more of it is powerful, funny, gripping, and poetic.
It is, in any event, a difficult play to pull off – eight characters, several of them major roles requiring serious acting chops – and a production that treads the line between realism and something more heightened. At McCarter, director Jade King Carroll hits all the right notes, never shying away from the bigness of Wilson’s writing, but also infusing it with energy and humor. Even before the play begins, Neil Patel’s set captures Wilson’s tonal mix – the realistic living room is set against a more abstract collage of the neighborhood.
The actors are uniformly excellent, including Shannon Janee Antalon, Frances Brown, Miriam A. Hyman, Owiso Odera, David Pegram, and Stephen Tyrone Williams – but there’s a special electricity to watching the conversations between John Earl Jelks (as Doaker) and Cleavant Derricks (playing his brother, Wining Boy). Jelks (whose previous work includes several major Wilson productions) is effortlessly naturalistic, conveying power without ever raising his voice. Derrick is a virtuoso showman. Watching these two very different but equally commanding actors is a master class in Wilson style.
Audiences looking to experience August Wilson’s work – and that should include all serious playgoers – will want to take advantage of this marvelous Piano Lesson. (And, by happy coincidence, in March, Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre will present Two Trains Running, the 1960s installment of the Pittsburgh Cycle).
The Piano Lesson runs through February 7. For more information, visit the McCarter Theatre Center website.