‘Piano Lesson’ at McCarter hits all the right notes

Written in 1990 but set in 1936, “The Piano Lesson” is the fourth in August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle and his most musical.

Although a fight over a hand-carved upright wooden heirloom  piano is at the center of the play’s conflict, it’s the dialogue that creates most of the music, plus an extended a capella rendition of the prison work song “Berta Berta.” It was a magical stage moment.

Director Jade King Carroll certainly knows her Wilson oeuvre, having served as dramaturg for the recording of the August Wilson Twentieth Century Cycle for WNYC, and offers us a fine, intimate production at the 373-seat Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, though Feb. 7.

Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) unexpectedly arrives from Mississippi with friend Lymon (David Peagram) and a truck load of watermelons to sell. Between the money he’s saved, the money he gets for the melons and the sale of the piano in his sister’s house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, he plans to buy a sharecroppers farm back home — the same one his ancestors worked on as slaves.

But Berniece (Miriam A. Hyman), who shares the home with her Uncle Doaker (John Earl Jelks) has no intention of selling the instrument that depicts the carved portraits of Charles family ancestors, including their great-grandfather’s wife and son as slaves. Her pain from so many directions is palpable and Hyman delivers her sense of restraint until her Willie Boy just pushes her too far.

The past and the future collide in the present for these siblings who look at life from two totally different angles —  both believing they are honoring the Charles’ family legacy.

Williams makes an excellent Boy Willie, a young man with a big dream to honor his ancestors by owning the farm that once owned them. It’s like he has ADHD as he can’t sit still and can’t wait to lay his hands on the necessary money and return home to make the deal.

Berniece, a three-year widow still mourning her dead husband, takes strength from the past to deal with the present. She has no interest in hearing about her brother’s plans if they include her piano and really wants him gone soonest.

The conflict is set early but as in all of Wilson’s plays, there’s a whole lotta  talking that will take place, much of it about the Black experience in America, family, relationships, losers and winners, good and evil, reality and dreams, before the nearly three-hour performance is over.

Rounding out the cast is the Rev. Brown (Owiso Odera), who would like to marry Berniece, her daughter Maretha (Frances Brown), Doaker’s older brother Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks), and local good-time girl Grace (Shannon Janee Antalan).

But we mustn’t forget another strong presence in this play — Sutter’s Ghost, the spirit of the man who owned the Charles family and farm Boy Willie wants to buy. He’s not happy with Willie Boy’s plans and let’s him know it, finally culminating in a showdown that doesn’t end well for the young man with a vision.

Neil Patel’s cutaway set with dozens of tenements in the background with interior lights going on and off as night becomes day, gives the feeling of a crowded, northern, vibrant city. But I feel sorry for the actors who had to run up and down that super-long staircase. Edward Pierce designed the lights and Paul Tazewell the costumes.

The Piano Lesson

WHERE: Berlin Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, through Feb. 7

TICKETS: $25-$94.50. Available online or by phone, 609-258-2787

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