by August Wilson
Directed by Alison Sealy-Smith
Starring Yanna McIntosh and Michael Anthony Rawlins
duMaurier Theatre Centre until March 2
Harbourfront Centre/416-973-4000

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

The Piano Lesson, the second of two plays by August Wilson to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Fences is the first), opened this week at the duMaurier Theatre Centre, where it runs until March 2. Produced by Obsidian Theatre Company, the play focuses on a brother-sister relationship that erupts over the issue of whether to sell a cherished family possession (the eponymous piano) and move ahead to create a new future or to retain the past as a way of defining what lies ahead. The themes are universal but the setting is very specific.

As he does in most of his plays, Wilson sets this family in Pittsburgh, his own hometown. The year is 1936. Into the home of Berniece (Yanna McIntosh) come her brother, Boy Willie (Michael Anthony Rawlins) and his friend, Lymon (D. Garnet Harding). The struggle that they endure over whether or not to sell the family piano serves to crystallize deeper truths about their respective pasts. While Berniece pursues a life of common decency with cold and rigid fierceness, Boy Willie imagines a life in the north that will begin with the acquisition of land. The instrument of their individual fates is also the literal keyboard instrument that takes pride of place in Berniece's home. The real and the metaphoric sit side by side as a way of reminding us all that we spend our lives struggling with personal history and the unknowable balance between holding on to past images and objects and letting go for the right reasons.

Wilson writes for an ensemble of actors rather than for star performances. (Whoopi Goldberg has just opened in a Broadway revival of Ma Rainey's Black-Bottom, but this attests to the play's enduring qualities more than it suggests cashing box office name for box office dollars.) The language of his plays is quiet, rarely leading to bravura speeches that deliver the writer's message in bold typeface. The challenge of a production of an August Wilson play, then, is to create a company of actors that can inhabit the language, its range of dialects and varieties in tempo and, at the same time, modulate the pace enough to delineate subtleties in characterization.

The cast of eight is not yet fully integrated, though the male characters have established an immediacy that catches Wilson's rhythms and attitudes with warmth and understated dignity. Walter Borden is especially powerful as Doaker and D. Garnet Harding's Lymon is unsophisticated in a totally disarming way. The relationship between brother and sister lacks the depth of visceral responses that are necessary to ignite their scenes and to lead the final moment to anything approaching catharsis. While both McIntosh and Rawlins display considerable skill on their own, there is little between them that suggests a lifetime's worth of personal history. The play falters with their scenes. I imagine that the group dynamic will strengthen throughout the run.

The Piano Lesson is epic in its human scale and almost as epic in its length. At three hours in running time (this includes one intermission) the Obsidian production is too evenly paced throughout and the fatigue factor is not eased by staging that rarely engages the eye. The ear is overworked at the start, at least my ear was, by dialects so thick and lines delivered so quickly that some of the play's essential details were lost. At the same time, concentrating on what the words are rather than what they mean and what they tell us about the characters speaking them, distances the viewer when he should be drawn more deeply into the life of the play.

Obsidian Theatre Company is still in its early years. Last season's great success (Djanet Sears's The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God) and this year's gutsy decision to proceed with a major August Wilson play suggest a future rich in possibilities.

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