AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Presented by TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Once again, TheatreWorks has help to develop a new gem, thus staging the 61st world premiere in its 43-year history. This time the pleasure comes through "Upright Grand" by Laura Schellhardt. Presented as the centerpiece of the company's 11th annual New Works Festival, this one-act, 90-minute work neatly assays about 18 years in the complex relationship between a father and daughter.

Pops (Dan Hiatt) has been playing piano for most of his life, usually at a bar where he plays sentimental favorites. At home he noodles around on an upright grand given to him by his curmudgeonly father as a high school graduation present. As he plays it at home, he's often visited or interrupted -- depending on one's view -- by his daughter, Kiddo (Renata Friedman). We first see them when she's an awkward 12 years old and has gotten into some relatively minor trouble at school.

Next she's 16 and showing exceptional talent on the piano. When next she's 21, she has studied at Julliard and is about to embark on her first professional concert tour. Finally, she's a poised 30 when she returns home to see Pops, who's gone downhill after his wife, Kiddo's mother, walked out. In each of these encounters, there's a sense of time passing as father and daughter try to communicate with each other and get what they need from each other.

Each has a conflicted agenda: Pops wants to help her achieve musical success yet wants to maintain his own form of a musical career. She, in turn, longs to be out on her own, yet wants and needs his approval and subtle guidance.

Schellhardt, aided by the sensitive direction of Meredith McDonough, skillfully weaves these complexities into an absorbing whole that's often laced with gentle humor. Hiatt, a Bay Area treasure, is the very embodiment of a caring yet distracted dad. Friedman tends to whine, especially when she portrays Kiddo's younger years, but she also demonstrates the character's gradual evolution into a successful, independent adult and musician.

The cast is completed by Brett Ryback as The Accompanist. This multi-talented performer does the lion's share of the actual piano playing and portrays four other peripheral characters, including Kiddo's Russian music tutor and the adult son of a man who worked at the bar where Pops played.

The other primary character, so to speak, is the piano that has played such an important role in the lives of father and daughter. Unseen but often mentioned characters are the wife/mother and Kiddo's affluent maternal grandparents.

Scenic designer Kris Stone's set features two pianos backed by a bank of angled upstage mirrors that are later hidden by a gauzy curtain. She also uses a turntable effectively. Maggie Whitaker's costumes help to reflect the passage of time, especially for Kiddo. The lighting is by Paul Toben, the sound by Cliff Caruthers. William Liberatore serves as musical director.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to see "Upright Grand" grace the stages of regional theaters across the country because of its intelligent, humor-infused depiction of the dynamics between a father and daughter.

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