Seeing a first-rate production of an August Wilson play is one of those sublime theatrical experiences that can restore your faith in the power of art. His plays have a way of moving even the most dispassionate and jaded theater-goer.
Signature Theatre Company’s current revival of “The Piano Lesson” is such a show. Directed by long-time Wilson collaborator, Ruben Santiago-Hudson—who long ago crossed over from acting into directing—the current revival is pitch perfect in every way and showcases Mr. Wilson’s poetic language. Mr. Santiago-Hudson understands the nuances of the Pulitzer-prize winner’s work like no other director and stages each moment so beautifully that it is truly breathtaking to watch.
Like the other Wilson works of the 10-play Century Cycle, “The Piano Lesson” focuses in on one decade of the 20th Century. Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, it follows one family’s struggle as they debate the sale of a carved piano that has been passed down to the current generation. Brandon J. Dirden, plays Boy Willie, an intense young man who hopes to remake his life with the proceeds of the sale. Standing in the way is his sister, Berniece (a stoic and lovely Roslyn Ruff,) who wants to hang on to the precious heirloom even though it has a bloody and painful provenance: ancestors were once sold and even died for the piano.
The ensemble cast, led by the extraordinary Ms. Ruff, is excellent. Their mastery of the Wilson rhythms makes the dialogue sing and many times you feel like you are watching—and hearing—a fine-tuned orchestra play. With a cast this fine, it’s hard to pick standouts but particularly memorable is Chuck Cooper who, as the flashy ex-musician Wining Boy, delivers the more colorful lines–as well as some big laughs. Mr. Cooper, with his large frame and melodic, fanciful tones, provides a perfect foil to both Ms. Ruff’s earthy Berniece and Mr. Dirden’s fierce Boy Willie.
The physical production is perfection. A gorgeous set by Michael Carnahan, detailed period costumes by Karen Perry and lovely, effective lighting by Rui Rita all work together to create the vivid Hill District world in which the characters inhabit. (And kudos to the prop department for finding the splendid and haunting piano.) The original music, always a hallmark of Mr. Wilson’s plays, is composed by Bill Sims, Jr., and perfectly complements the harmony in the dialogue.
“The Piano Lesson” has been extended and runs to December 30. For tickets and information, visit www.signaturethatre.org.
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