You can’t sell your soul for money. But at what point does the sentimental value of a family heirloom become diminished enough to sell it for money? When ghosts of the past, both figuratively and literally, take to haunting a family, decisions must be made. Olney Theatre Center presents August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. As the fourth play in Wilson’s “Century Cycle” series, the story follows an African-American family as they attempt to place history in the past, the result of which starts a fiery feud over selling a precious family treasure. Despite its length and heavy exposition, the drama is gripping and brings a stunning message to the audience. Directed by Jamil Jude, this evocative production is an emotional gift to anyone with a family.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger captures the essence of the mid 1930s in Pittsburgh in the simplistic construct of Doaker’s house. The furnishings provide the basic comforts and necessities without being overly elaborate or terribly impoverished. Ettinger’s attention to detail is sharply honed, the scuffed tile floor of the kitchen flushed against the faded wooden boards of the sitting room with no demarcation line between them. There is a sense belonging crafted into the set; a family lives in the house that has been built. The second story of the house is effective brilliance on Ettinger’s behalf as it makes scenes that occur later in the performance that much more intense.
Supernatural elements are a key component to the functionality of Wilson’s work and Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce alongside Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop create very striking moments of super natural phenomenon. Ittoop and Pierce’s designs are subtle but recognizable; a harsh blue glue accompanied by badly tuned piano notes, just enough to infuse the atmosphere with a presence without delving into the notion of spectacle. While the presence of ghosts is important it is not the focus of the show and both Pierce and Ittoop manage to balance their effects accordingly. Pierce provides impressive lighting for the interior of the house, particularly during late night scenes when a single ray of a street light or the moon is all that lights the sitting room.
Director Jamil Jude drives the pacing of the production. The various family histories and tales are retold by the characters in a fashion that engages the audience without losing them in the insurmountable amount of important facts being thrown at them. Jude’s cast articulates the dialect of the time period, making distinctive differences between the characters whose roots are more present in the south and those that have taken permanent residence in the north. An overall sensationally acted show, Jude’s approach to the work does Wilson’s work a great deal of authentic emotional justice.
With each character carrying their own version of family history, a great deal of commotion is easily stirred up when differing opinions surface. The thing that drives this production is the tension that forms so easily between characters. Berniece (Jessica Frances Dukes) brings her own points of tension with each individual, even her own daughter, Maretha (Nicole Wildy). These palpable tensions motivate the stories of Wilson’s work in a forward progression, building until they erupt like emotional volcanoes, changing the course of the play’s plot.
Dukes gives a stunning performance as the female protagonist, for it is as much Berniece’s story as it is Boy Willie’s. Delivering fury like a packed pistol, her moments of rage swell from deep within her, but in clipped bursts. It isn’t until later in the performance that the full potential of Dukes’ emotional depth is actualized, during her intense speech about the piano. Balancing these cataclysmically unstable emotions against her practical side, Dukes creates a fascinating character of Berniece, particularly as the end of the performance draws near.
Playing opposite of her as the antagonizing protagonist is Boy Willie (Ronald Conner). Initially appearing as little more than a clever, albeit flippant and arrogant, schemer, Conner’s approach to the character shifts drastically as the production progresses. Following the character’s limited arch of growth, Conner manages to infuse genuine repressed emotional backlash into his character and the vocal confrontations with Dukes become the most gripping and intense moments in the performance. His casual ease in the character’s skin makes the moments where Boy Willie makes jokes and cracks wise that much more entertaining. The frenetic energy that Conner possesses makes Boy Willie a much more engaging character than he appears in print; constantly moving, constantly talking, constantly spinning an angle.
Doaker (Jonathan Peck) plays the role of the eyes, always watching and keeping silent on the matter unless he absolutely has to speak up. Peck has a way with Wilson’s dialogue, turning long heavy sections of dialogue that would otherwise lose the audience’s attention into smooth rambling stories that flow along like a babbling brook on a lazy Sunday afternoon in the middle of July. His facial expressions are where most of the emotional connection in his character derives from; animated moments like calling Boy Willie out on his shenanigans making for some of the more humorous moments in the play.
Wining Boy (Harold Surratt) in a sense become comic relief right alongside Lymon (Jon Hudson Odom). Characters as different as night and day in their comic portrayals, each serves a surefire purpose to the production, delivering relief to the otherwise heavy nature of the plot. Surratt plays a mean boogie woogie on the piano and his vocals are up to snuff to boot. Odom brings a marvelous simplicity to the character which makes him engaging; his realistically stupid approach to Lymon making him believable. The pair may have few interactions between them, as Surratt’s character spends most of his time with Doaker and Odom’s character is often engaged with Boy Willie, but when they are together—particularly during the ‘suit exchange’ scene—they make quite the duo of laughs. The perfect balance to an otherwise incredibly intense drama; Odom and Surratt find the fun in dysfunctional families.
Thanks to Jude’s rigorous pacing, the three hour production moves along to completion without notice of time passing. One for the books, The Piano Lesson is Olney Theatre Center’s first production of an August Wilson play in the 76 years they have been in existence, and it’s an exceptional experience not to be missed.
Running Time: Three hours, with one intermission.
The Piano Lesson plays through June 1, 2014 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.
The Piano Lesson review by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMTA.