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Relearning the Universal Language

Amy Love (left) and Jessica K. Peterson play songs in the key of life and death

As The Music Lesson opens, the houselights are dimmed and a subtle illumination spotlights the hand of Irena (Jessica K. Peterson), a pianist and music teacher from the former Yugoslavia. As she sits center stage on a white piano bench, her hand slowly begins to play an invisible keyboard one chord at a time. The imposing presence of an actual grand piano and violin at the back of the stage easily creates the illusion that music is the elegant apparatus of the musician, but this single hand held in midair reminds us of the palpability of the music itself. More than a metaphor, classical music becomes a tangible character in Florida Stage's production of The Music Lesson. It is sometimes both a weapon and a shield, at other times a refuge and something to be escaped. We see the characters struggle with music as a true character and not a prop. They fight it, ignore it, trivialize it, and fear it: "Music is like sleeping on knives," says Kat (Amy Love), Irena's student. "It makes me think of all the things that scare me."

But above all music is a language, and as Irena says to her husband, Ivan, "Music is the only language you need." What fuels Irena is the belief that music is so powerful and pervasive it can change lives.

Irena and Ivan (Joris Stuyck) have taken refuge in Pittsburgh from their war-torn city of Sarajevo. In a chance meeting at the grocery store, the recently divorced Mrs. Johnson (Elizabeth Dimon) persuades Ivan to give her son Eddie (Ashton Lee) violin lessons. Ivan in turn volunteers his wife Irena to give Mrs. Johnson's wayward daughter, Kat, piano lessons. The play moves back and forth between present-day Pittsburgh and Sarajevo in the early '90s. A strong part of these flashbacks is the appearance of Maja (Maggi St. Clair Melin), a young girl who was Irena's favorite student and became like a daughter to her. Maja, who was one of several children killed when a sniper threw a grenade onto a crowded playground, appears as an apparition in some of the play's most gripping scenes. Who could be more romanticized in a tale of war-ridden Bosnia than children? Fortunately playwright Tammy Ryan has created a script that does not exploit the plight of children for its emotional impact but shows children as human beings trapped in conditions imposed by politics, geography, and society.

The Music Lesson teaches us that the country of childhood has no nationality. The desire to fit in and the need to feel safe and loved is universal. Through a series of scenes in which both Maja and Kat take the stage, the audience witnesses the girls' mutual struggle to be liberated from neglect, violence, and frustration in their respective societies. Overshadowed by her little brother, who is a child prodigy and hurting from the separation of their parents, Kat is bitter and resistant to piano lessons. In an amazing scene in which Irena loses her temper and confronts Kat about her hostile attitude, Maja appears, shadowing the outrage and hurt that Kat unleashes. While Maja expresses her emptiness at not being able to go to school, Kat laments her overcrowded school and thoughtless teachers. The girls perform this striking duet, finally crouching with their hands over their heads -- Maja in terror of bombings and Kat wishing something would destroy her to end the pain she feels.

As Irena, Jessica Peterson is an engaging force throughout the play. Neither a valiant survivor of war nor a model teacher, Irena cowers, criticizes, and acquiesces in the face of daily life in her new country. She feels alienated by her husband's openness and enthusiasm about his adopted land. Irena often has panic attacks in which she loses touch with reality and is thrust into disturbing remembrances of Sarajevo. In one scene Ivan tries to calm her and offers her a glass of water. She responds, "Water -- I just want to drink a glass of water and not think if it needs to be cleaned or boiled." She is reliving her time spent in basements hiding from bombs. We see her simultaneously safe in her Pittsburgh apartment and in danger in a Sarajevo basement. This duality transforms The Music Lesson into a theatrically moving and meaningful experience.

Although the seats to the far right of the house do not give full view of the pianist and violinist at the back of the stage behind the modest living room set, the small stage is efficiently utilized. The piano bench, probably the most important prop, is a crucial point of dramatic action. The bench itself is a stage within a stage, at which the similarly unwilling student and teacher, Kat and Irena, act out their conflict. In one visually compelling scene, the stage lights go on and off, methodically illuminating a series of vignettes: Irena positions Kat's hands, corrects her posture. Each moment reveals frustration and incomprehension for both characters. Amy Love is convincing as the disdainful student. Her slouching, hateful stares and eye-rolling paint the perfect portrait of the frustrated adolescent.

Part of The Music Lesson's success in saying something meaningful and emotionally relevant about such a serious subject is the incorporation of everyday humor in the dialogue. Watching Irena and Ivan struggle to communicate in English provides levity, as do comments from the children, as when Eddie exclaims, "We're not a family. We're just people living in the same house." This humor reflects an emotional honesty in the script that is portrayed well by the actors. Conversely the script also addresses the characters' familiarity with evil. Early in the play Maja describes the evolving tension among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims as "a dark river of hate rising." Later, when the violence has reached its height and families have been torn apart, she begins to feel that same river rising in her. Although still a young girl, she must struggle with adult conflicts. This emotional veracity is consistent in Maggi St. Clair Melin's delivery throughout the play.

The Music Lesson is not just another account of human tragedy desensitized by a flood of overt emotion and sentimentality, it is a moving account of people trying to rebuild their lives. Music is not used for transitioning or for catapulting the more dramatic moments over the top. In fact codirectors Louis Tyrrell and Mark Lynch have conjured up the best of both worlds -- solid, emotive theater and eloquent live music. The presence of the pianist and violinist gives the audience not only the benefit of live classical music but also the opportunity to witness the artistry that goes into playing an instrument while avoiding the logistic problem of actors attempting to play instruments professionally. Although the actors indeed must accurately mime the playing of their instrument, Tyrrell and Lynch lead their cast toward a more conceptual approach, allowing the audience to witness the emotion involved in the playing without the obtrusiveness of the instrument itself. Like the invisible walls of Grovers Corners in Our Town, these invisible instruments give breadth to the actors' portrayals and the audience's imagination.


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