Nearly eight years ago, Tennessee Repertory Theatre staged August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, a 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner and possibly the best of the 10 entries in the playwright's epic Pittsburgh Cycle — a lesson in the 20th century sociocultural history of African-Americans. That production, the Rep's first ever mounting of a Wilson play and a local landmark to remember, was distinctive and distinguished, featuring three superb leading Nashville stage performers in Barry Scott, Kimberley LaMarque and jeff obafemi carr.
With far less fanfare (and budget), and performing at Lipscomb University's relatively modest Shamblin Theater (rather than TPAC's Polk Theater), Circle Players nevertheless makes its own serious statement with Wilson's piece — offering a rewarding production that is driven by fine acting and entertainingly delivers the story's mixed emotional messages about letting go of the past and moving on with the future.
Immovable object meets irresistible force here, as a beautiful old piano comes between a brother and sister. A family heirloom that represents an ancestral slave legacy, the instrument embodies the power struggles between the siblings and, as an extension, between the old ways of the agrarian South and the hoped-for progress of the more industrial North.
The year is 1937, and 35-year-old widow Berniece and her daughter Maretha live in Pittsburgh with an uncle, Doaker Charles, who works for the railroad. Early one morning, Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, arrives unannounced with his friend Lymon, the two having completed an arduous journey from Mississippi in an unreliable truck that is loaded with watermelons, which they've come to sell to the locals.
Yet Boy Willie, a sharecropper, has a lot more on his mind. With an opportunity to purchase the land that his ancestors had toiled on as slaves, he has come to sell the family piano, with his share intended to provide him his grubstake. The piano, festooned with ornate carvings that tell the family's history, has a central place in Doaker's living room and, more importantly, a central place in Berniece's heart, representing her father's life and her mother's grief over his passing. Moreover, Berniece is hounded by ghosts she believes reside in the piano, which she will no longer play in order to keep the spirits at bay.
Thus the drama's evening-long battle is pitched. Boy Willie harps relentlessly on the piano's monetary value and its importance to his future, while Berniece stares him down, defending the instrument's sentimental and spiritual status, and its link to precious family memories.
The play, like many of Wilson's works, can be long-winded, but director JP Schuffman commendably paces his staging, his actors expediently and clearly dealing with a fair amount of exposition, then reserving their very best for the many moments that count — from charming and humorous, to impassioned and defiant, to poignant and mystical. In a not insignificant feat, Schuffman brings the play home in under three hours, and its many words are maximized by a superior cast, led by Rashad Rayford and Tamiko Robinson.
Boy Willie is a determined sort, and Rayford — a versatile stand-up comic and poet as well as thespian —works the role for all its singlemindedness and obsessive focus. Indeed, Willie is all "mouth," according to his sister, and his late Act 2 monologues — delivered by Rayford with pointed sarcasm — effectively defend his case while pointing out the potential hypocrisy of those who would stand in his way. (Which is pretty much everybody by then.) Rayford sturdily carries much of the show on his wiry shoulders.
Robinson, one of Nashville's most important actresses, takes the opportunity here to stretch out in a time-tested great role, and she doesn't disappoint. Every bit as determined as Boy Willie, her Berniece never wavers in her fidelity to the family's broader legacy, and she's a tough and voluble adversary throughout — with or without a pistol in her hand.
The play's secondary but still important roles are handled with poise by Joel Diggs (as the avuncular Doaker), Adarian Lherisson (as the likable, girl-crazy Lymon) and Shawn Whitsell (as Avery Brown, a preacher-in-training eager to make Berniece his wife).
Also on board, as the musician and gambler Wining Boy — the play's more obvious comical figure — is veteran actor Elliott Robinson, who etches his warmly humorous portrayal with a welcome evenhandedness. Fiona Soul and Jordyn Tucker represent nicely in minor roles.
The set design is credited to Jessica Ayers and Michael Redman, and it's an admirable job — period-appropriate and centrally anchored by a very handsome and meaningful upright piano.
From the company that recently scored a success with The Color Purple, this Piano Lesson again finds Circle Players striking a blow for worthy community theater.
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