16 May 2005

Theatre Roundup: The Piano Lesson

Caught closing night of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson down at Arena Stage Sunday night. I hadn't seen any of his other plays staged and was wondering what to expect. It was in the Fichlander, which always has interesting staging, and I wasn't disappointed. Theatre in the Round can accomodate both elaborate staging with lots of movement and changes, or focused, intense single-location dramas. I don't care what some critics say, the theatre-in-the-round may be one of the best ways to see these taut drawing room settings. The Piano Lesson is such a play, with all action taking place within the living room/kitchen of one house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Watching a play with such a unified setting allows you to understand how intense the process of creating a compelling drama can be. All the action takes place in one setting, but the characters have to rotate smoothly in and out of the stage in ways that seem natural. Eugene O'Neill was a master of this form, with both The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night using these close confines to build tension until an explosion levelled the characters' relationships. Wilson also commands the form, as the spare setup featuring the ornately carved piano allows the actors to dominate the stage, while keeping the symbolic piano always prominent.

Thematically, Wilson conjures up the same ghosts of memory that haunt Toni Morrison's work and also William Faulkner. Often when talking about the legacy of slavery in this country, we are left to deal with ghosts as memory becomes almost tangible and the past, as Faulkner said, "is never dead. It's not even past." The dialogue is simply amazing, and the cast of this production all provide great performances, although Harriett Foy's Berniece seemed forced in the early going. Or maybe it was just me. I was immensely impressed both by Arena's staging and Wilson's play itself. With the death of Arthur Miller, Wilson may be the greatest living American playwright (no offense to Edward Albee).

I'll be back down at Arena on Thursday to see O'Neill's Anna Christie. I've been lucky enough to see O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Mourning Becomes Electra staged in this town, and it's always a treat to see O'Neill staged.

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