Signature Theatre Presents:
The Piano Lesson
By August Wilson
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
(Signature Theatre Website)
James Houghton, Founding Artistic Director
Erika Mallin, Exec. Director
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
(212) 244-PLAY (7529)
Eric Lenox Abrams, Chuck Cooper, Brandon J. Dirden
Jason Dirden, Alexis Holt, Mandi Masden,
Roslyn Ruff, and James A. Williams
Scenic Design: Michael Carnahan
Costume Design: Karen Perry
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Original Music, Bill Sims, Jr.
Fight Direction: J. David Brimmer
Casting: Telsey + Company/William Cantler CSA
Production Stage Manager: Winnie Y. Lok
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Assoc. Artistic Director: Beth Whitaker
General Manager: Adam Bernstein
Director of Marketing: David Hatkoff
Director of Production: Paul Ziemer
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
January 2, 2013
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is one luminous highlight of this theatre season. Each character is a magnetic and striking storyteller of the tumultuous history, human condition, and aspirations of Pittsburgh’s new enclave of African-American families. The new Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street draws the audience fully in, with Michael Carnahan’s expansive scenic design of Doaker Charles’ (James A. Williams) living room, where he lives with his niece, Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), and her young daughter, Maretha (Alexis Holt). Wilson’s play exudes an aura of calm predictability in the neat, comfortably furnished surroundings, until Berniece’s rough and tumble brother, Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden), accompanied by his old friend, Lymon (Jason Dirden), explodes onto the scene like a train gone loose.
Boy Willie and Lymon parked a truck outside with enough watermelons to sell to meet one-half payment for a questionable farming plot. But Boy Willie wants the other half-payment from a sale of Berniece’s mysteriously carved, upright piano, which immediately draws the eye throughout the remainder of the play. The back story of this piano is told in a poignant monologue by Berniece, one of many monologues. A family friend, Wining Boy (Chuck Cooper), has his own long tale of lost love, but his razzle-dazzle piano playing, later on, bring down the house and bring the piano back to life. Berniece’s tale of lost love, of her deceased husband, unfolds in bits and pieces of dialogue, a more opaque detail in the complex plot. But, she has a gentleman caller, Avery (Eric Lenox Abrams), a handsome preacher in town, whose persistence is fervent. The remaining character is Grace (Mandi Masden), who meets Boy Willie at a bar, where he’s been enjoying the fruits of his watermelon sales.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson has directed this Wilson masterpiece to showcase the inherent longing and humanity of each of these intertwined characters. At times it seems Brandon Dirden will literally explode with fiery anger or passion, while his seduction scene with Ms. Masden, as Grace, is laced with visual wit. Jason Dirden (Brandon’s real-life brother) has his own quasi-seduction scene with Berniece, and the quietude and sensitivity of the moment are palpable. Mr. Williams, as Doaker, is a restrained, nurturing, class act, a man who has achieved a sense of peace. Mr. Cooper, as the lifelong, independent musician, has his own moment of wit, when he sells Lymon one of his big old, jazzy outfits. Mr. Abrams, as Avery, a fascinating character, seizes the stage in the play’s finale. Ms. Ruff is an actress that should be seen more often. Tonight she exuded sensational stoicism and stage presence in light of her character’s challenge. A pretend gun in her apron pocket was just one subtle detail. Rui Rita’s lighting, David Van Tieghem’s sound, and Karen Perry’s costumes all enhanced the experience. Kudos to August Wilson.