August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (Syracuse Stage, 2014)

The Piano Lesson
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson received the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and its 2012 Broadway revival was heralded by critics. The recent Syracuse Stage production of the work is a great example of how different creative teams can fundamentally change the way a play comes across. This is the vitality of theater – it’s different from production to production, from night to night.

For those keeping track, this was the 17th consecutive “final Thursday evening” show I’ve seen at Syracuse Stage where the audience stood at the end (or maybe it just felt that way.) Sometimes I’m sure I saw a different production from everyone else. Not quite this time – there was a lot of good craft on display. Still, I felt this was the weakest of director Timothy Bond’s August Wilson outings (Two Trains Running, Radio Golf and Fences were excellent.)

The cast was uneven, and seemed at times to be acting in different productions from each other. Best of the bunch was Stephen Tyrone Williams, consistently magnetic as Boy Willie (Samuel L. Jackson originated the role in 1987 – Williams brought a kindred intensity and wildness); G. Valmont Thomas was very funny, and anchored the show’s two fabulous musical centerpieces. The other actors had good moments but didn’t always come across as real people; especially during Wilson’s long expository speeches, melodrama intruded and life (and urgency) tended to drain from the scene. Weakest was Marcea Bond as Maretha, which I wouldn’t have mentioned until I read her name in the program later. An aside: Sofia Coppola was savaged for her performance in The Godfather Part III when Winona Rider dropped out and Sofia’s father cast her in a key role; although I missed Winona, I always felt Sofia was unfairly demonized. With that said, Marcia Bond isn’t up to Sofia’s level. Directors – it matters. Please cast people who can act.

Scenic designer William Bloodgood and lighting designer Geoff Korf deliver what may be the finest collaboration I’ve seen at Syracuse Stage. We don’t give standing ovations for those, but I would have, if it had been clear what I was applauding for. The set was spacious but just about perfect, and a dream to light – great colors and almost no incorrect shadows from the actors. Korf’s work was extraordinary – a master class in defining and highlighting actors while maintaining mood.

This Piano Lesson really seemed to go off the rails in its final ten minutes. The tone of the piece shifted, as the implied ghost story became literal – some actors seemed to be playing for laughs, while others were variously successful in their depictions of fear/awe. I’m not sure if Wilson’s stage directions included the pratfalls Bond put Williams through, but the supernatural elements ruined the slow-building metaphorical payoff I’d been expecting (it’s right there in the title.) When Erika LaVonn finally acceded to play the piano, it wasn’t clear whether her limited musical ability ruined the moment, or if Bond’s direction had spoiled it already. Furthermore, a series of inept lighting cues added insult to injury – I find it hard to believe Korf wrote them, preferring to believe they were added by an intern after Korf had clocked out.

I didn’t give this production a standing ovation, which puts me in the minority; what’s interesting is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a promising start flushed away in the final minutes. Maybe it’s me – next step is to read the source and see what August Wilson wrote.