The past is prologue," goes the old saying, but for much of the theater, ancient and modern, the past isn't even past. Many plays have been constructed about past crimes that have risen to disturb the peace of the present. It's an ongoing trend that's particularly interesting in contemporary America, which seems to lack much interest in (or at least respect for) history, except as the raw material for the latest Russell Crowe movie.
Among modern American playwrights, August Wilson has perhaps the keenest sense of history. He has dedicated a full set of ten plays to the African-American experience in the 20th Century, one play for each decade. But history for Wilson is not merely to be chronicled and celebrated, it must be confronted. For Wilson's characters, the present always contains serious challenges, but the past is both inescapable and irresolvable. In The Piano Lesson, now being presented by the M Ensemble in North Miami, Wilson conjures up a tale of family discord that is deceptively simple at first view. It's the 1930s, and a restless man from Mississippi, Boy Willie, shows up at his sister's house in Pittsburgh with a truck load of watermelons he has hauled up from down South. Boy Willie's a dynamic, gregarious character with a lot of charm but a steely intent. He plans to sell his melons and the family piano, an heirloom handed down to him and his sister, Berneice, from their slave ancestors. Therein lies the problem: Boy Willie wants to sell this relic of the past to gain land, the asset his sharecropper family has always lacked. But Berneice refuses to sell the piano, a symbol of all that her family has endured and overcome.
The brother/sister standoff simmers during Boy Willie's visit, but tensions don't build immediately, largely due to the likable relatives and friends who come and go in Berneice's household. Uncle Doaker may grumble and fuss, but he provides the whiskey for more than one storytelling session. Another relative, Winning Boy, serves up his share of those stories. And Boy Willie's country pal Lymon finds Pittsburgh to his liking, and so is Berneice. But as Boy Willie's stay comes to an end, his showdown with Berneice looms closer. The Piano Lesson is Wilson's second Pulitzer Prize-winning script, a traditionally structured drama that is filled with evocative language and dramatic tension. It's also quite funny and charming, with a vivid sense of familial relationships -- these characters really feel like an extended family.
The production features a lively, intelligent acting ensemble, which takes on the challenge of Wilson's poetic text with mixed results. The key performance comes from Stacy-Ann Rose, who is thoroughly engaging as the put-upon Berneice. Rose's acting style is low-key and emotionally grounded, and she's nicely matched with Tarell Alvin-McCraney as Lymon. In the production's best scene, Lymon sits on the living room settee with Berneice, chatting about his search for a down-to-earth woman to love. You can precisely spot the separate moments when each of these lonely people suddenly realizes an attraction for the other. Their individual, awkward realizations of this attraction and their subsequent attempts to disguise it make for an indelible acting sequence, which director John Pryor handles deftly. Ray Lockhart does a nice job in the rather underwritten, typical role of Avery, the preacher and Berneice's erstwhile suitor. Same goes for Keith C. Wade as the gruff, slow-burning Doaker, and Chat Atkins as the winsome, restless Winning Boy, who grabs laughs with his jokes yet finds some touching pathos in his memories of his ex-wife.
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However, this Lesson misses the mark in some respects. The redoubtable Andre L. Gainey is miscast as Boy Willie, whose menace and tightly coiled frustration drive the story. Much of Wilson's work comes down to this single character type, an ornery, self-reliant black hero who, living by his own rules, is endlessly hounded by white authorities yet is his own worst enemy. Small wonder that Wilson's favorite "go-to" actor, Charles S. Dutton, originated the role on Broadway. Gainey delivers Boy Willie's humor, empathy, and haplessness, but he's not very dangerous or volatile, depriving the simple plotline of a needed jolt of menace, and his quest to sell the piano seems more a matter of pig-headedness than building desperation. Although Pryor directs cleanly for most of the story, his busy, muddy staging of the final scene, a rapidly developing confrontation that leads to a surprise resolution, seems off the mark.
As seems to be a constant for M Ensemble, the production values are decidedly uneven. Dudley Pinder's set and lighting design is simple, no-nonsense realism, with little sense of mood or magic to support Wilson's rich imagery. Sure, M's modest production budget, like that of other even smaller South Florida theatres, demands a lot of "making do." But someone is not sweating the details. Though the thoughtful, understated costume design is a decided plus, tiny discrepancies suggest a lack of follow through. Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in suitable work clothes, but the clean, pressed look reveals more attention from the wardrobe manager than devotion to the storyline: two or three days of driving a truck up from Mississippi should result in at least a few wrinkles. These characters look like they own a dry cleaner. The same applies to the props -- the story is set in the 1930s, but the colorful, plastic-handled screwdriver and some aluminum dolly casters scream Home Depot, not Depression-era Pittsburgh.
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