When a truly in-sync cast connects with one of August Wilson’s greatest scripts, an electrical charge can arc from stage to audience and sizzle for three hours.
Round House Theatre’s recent production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” did just that.
Olney Theatre Center’s intimate staging of another Wilson classic, “The Piano Lesson,” doesn’t achieve quite the same level of cohesiveness, but under Jamil Jude’s direction, there are performances and design elements to savor.
Wilson wrote 10 plays about the African American experience — one for every decade of the 20th century, all but one set in the Hill district of Pittsburgh. “The Piano Lesson” takes place in 1936, a time when older African Americans still carried personal memories of slavery. The play is about their immediate descendants, who moved north in the Great Migration.
Memories haunt the family in “The Piano Lesson” in a very literal way — in an upright piano carved with images tracing the family’s history, and in ghostly visitations by a tormentor who embodies their painful past. Whether to cling to those memories, let them go or find a third way is the play’s big tug-of-war.
Daniel Ettinger’s lived-in set has nice Depression-era details — an old monitor-top refrigerator, a bread box painted with tulips, lace curtains. Vertical wood slats frame a living room and kitchen in the house where railway cook Doaker (Jonathan Peck) lives with Berniece (Jessica Frances Dukes) and her preteen daughter Maretha (Nicole Wildy). Doaker is Berniece’s uncle.
A partly obscured staircase leads up to the bedrooms, and it’s on that upper level where lighting designer Xavier Pierce and sound designer Elisheba Ittoop create the flickering, rattling ghostly manifestations that punctuate the play. Considering the intimate space in which Olney is doing the show, its Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, the designers overdo it a bit.
Berniece works as a house cleaner and still grieves for Maretha’s father, who was shot dead in the South three years earlier. Doaker and Berniece have made a decent life for themselves in Pittsburgh, but their tranquillity is shattered when Berniece’s bumptious and unwelcome brother Boy Willie (Ronald Conner) arrives. He and his pal Lymon (Jon Hudson Odom) have driven up from the South with a truck full of watermelons to sell. But Boy Willie’s real agenda is to exercise his half-ownership in the piano and sell it. He intends to go back south, buy land from a white man whose family once enslaved theirs, and farm it. Berniece has no intention of letting him do that.
Other things happen in “The Piano Lesson.” Boy Willie and Lymon chase the same woman (Lauren DuPree). Avery (JoBen Early), a newly minted preacher, begs Berniece to marry him; Wining Boy (Harold Surratt), an itinerant piano player and family friend, shows up pleading for cash and whiskey. But always at the center of the play is that piano, pulling focus.
Boy Willie talks past everyone and won’t be deterred. Conner, a last-minute replacement who joined the cast just before previews, fully inhabits the role, but his energy is sometimes too much for the small space. Dukes as Berniece expertly matches Connor’s force with barely contained fury and heartache. As the fast-talking Wining Boy, Surratt is a charmer, as is Odom’s Lymon, a likable naif.
It is Peck’s often inspired but uneven turn as Doaker that gives the production some of its high points, but also its hiccups. With his resonant voice, thin frame and haunted eyes, Peck brings hints of pain and a gentle wisdom to the role. Doaker gets to tell the big stories — he has one huge speech after another. At the reviewed performance, Peck tripped up often. He always recovered, but those breaks in the flow can take an audience out of the play and the poetry out of the writing.
Olney’s staging of “The Piano Lesson,” so intimate it’s really chamber theater, achieves more than a little of the Wilson magic despite its flaws, but it needs to gel.
by August Wilson. Directed by Jamil Jude. Tickets $48.50-$63.50. Two hours, 50 minutes, including intermission. Through June 1 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. www.olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.