You wouldn’t know it from reading the reviews, but there’s an agreeable stink of sulfur in the air at Arena Stage—a whiff, at minimum, of awareness from director Seret Scott that in The Piano Lesson, August Wilson is interested in more than just the earthly consequences of the family squabble over that ornately carved upright squatting sullen and silent in the corner of the Fichandler. Of course, Wilson’s always at least a little concerned with what’s going on in realms unseen, so perhaps noting that a director has figured that out is like noting that the pilot’s managed to get the plane off the ground. Still, you’d think the ghost everybody keeps seeing at the head of the stairs—or maybe the blood-red glow that seems to emerge from that piano once Wilson brings events to a head—would merit a critical mention.
Ah, well: Maybe Scott and her company can find some comfort in knowing that the working cookstove goes over big. Or maybe they’ll simply be content understanding, as they plainly do, that the Pulitzer winner’s “windy” disquisitions are a big part of the point of his plays—just listen to the irrepressible, irresistible Frederick Strother wind the stem off that story about the local would-be Christ and what happens when it comes time for the Crucifixion. Time stops at Arena for that yarn and for The Piano Lesson’s other set pieces—the tale of how a railroad got its name, a minister’s recounting of the three hobos who brought his calling in a dream, and of course that immense and immensely important Act 1 gospel about how the piano came to be carved with the faces of the Charles family’s ancestors and to be sitting in their Pittsburgh living room instead of in the Mississippi home of the white man who owned those ancestors. And in those endless frozen moments, in those epochs where families and histories are all, Scott’s production does Wilson all kinds of justice.
Where it fails him, unfortunately, is in the way the play moves—or doesn’t. Wilson’s never been the linear sort—like Shakespeare, he’ll stop here and there to brush in a bit of backstory, and he tells most tales two or three times to make sure the groundlings can keep up—but his shows don’t have to feel as circular and ultimately as static as this one does. Aside from that terribly exciting business with the kitchen, nothing combusts; there’s no clash of anything titanic—no sense, ghost or no ghost, that big metaphysics are percolating behind the play’s events. And there should be in a story centered on a brother/sister battle over whether to sell the family soul.
It’s the ’30s, the Depression has its teeth hard on the nation’s throat, and Wilson’s characters cope the way many African-Americans coped half a century after slavery and half a lifetime before Selma. Doaker (a winningly laconic David Emerson Toney), who’d be the patriarch if this clan had any cohesion, cooks on the railroad, and he’s learned a little something there about the national restlessness; his niece Berniece (the amusingly strict Harriett D. Foy) cleans houses in white man’s land; Strother’s dissipated Wining Boy (Doaker’s older brother, not a family friend, despite what you might have read) drinks and wanders the country’s byways, dropping in now and again with a new story and an old song. And Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie (the charismatic Jeorge Watson), does what he can do—right now, he’s selling off a load of watermelons he’s trucked up from down home with his buddy Lymon (a charmingly uncomplicated Carl Cofield). When he’s done with that, Boy Willie means to sell off that old piano and put his half of the money toward 100 acres of Mississippi farmland that’s become available recently, owing to its previous proprietor’s unfortunate encounter with the bottom of his own well.
But if Watson’s restless, stubborn striver would wrestle his future into being by any means necessary—he’s less concerned with the dubious law of the segregated South, he blusters at one point, than with what he knows is right, and it may not be a coincidence that that ghost comes calling his name—his sister can’t seem to shake the past from her shoulders. She’s pinned by the psychic weight of that piano and its legacy of family pain: Their father died for it, one of those stories eventually reveals, their grandfather and great-grandmother were the currency a white man used to buy the cursed thing, and it was their woodworker great-grandfather who carved their likenesses there. That piano, Berniece insists, won’t leave her house except over her cold corpse.
Wilson, as usual, is telling stories that have meanings upon meanings; in The Piano Lesson, he’s taking on everything from vigilante justice and how fathers’ sins revisit their sons to epic questions about whether an oppressed people will find more redemption in a far-off promised land or in staying grimly put to wrench long-deferred promises out of the ungenerous ground of home. And to their credit, Scott and her cast get that—they allow plenty of room for The Piano Lesson’s lessons to resonate.
What they don’t do, one or two musical interludes notwithstanding, is make it sing. The drama never tightens; there’s none of the necessary menace tangled up in the easy magnetism of Watson’s Boy Willie, no real knots in the strong fibers of Foy’s Berniece. And for all her deftness with the metaphorical, Scott doesn’t demonstrate much command of the personal, the intimate chemistry; Watson and Foy never get under each other’s skin the way only siblings can, and there’s precious little here of the psychological layering Wilson demands if his long yarns are to add up to fabric over the length of a three-hour evening.
Worst, there’s just no sense of arc: Scott’s feel for how Wilson works has distracted her from the basics of how theater needs to work. The big confrontations feel too stagy, the mystical moments too woo-woo. And so The Piano Lesson feels less like a subtle, epic drama than an untidy documentary about an unsettled family—and an uninvolving one, at that.CP