by Mark G. Auerbach
August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Piano Lesson, is Hartford Stage’s current offering, and one of many dramas that make Wilson one of the most important theatre voices of the 20th century. In a series of ten plays, “The American Century Cycle”, Wilson explored the African-American experience from the turn-of-the-century to the new millennium. These plays have attracted the finest actors and directors of our time to the stage, among them James Earl Jones, Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, and Whoopi Goldberg.
The Piano Lesson is the fourth play of the cycle, and like six of the ten plays, made its debut in New Haven at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The Piano Lesson had a respectable Broadway run in 1990, and became a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special in 1995, starring Charles S. Dutton and S. Epatha Merkerson from Law & Order.
In The Piano Lesson, two siblings squabble over their rights to an upright piano, which has a place in their family history. Some of the extended family are urbanized in the Depression-era Pittsburgh. Others have made their way north from the rural South. Different values and expectations clash.
Hartford Stage was wise to choose Jade King Carroll to helm The Piano Lesson. Carroll staged last season’s Having our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years and she gave the production texture and nuance. She also brought along her set designer Alexis Distler and her father, the composer Baikida Carroll to bring their skills to this production. Carroll’s production is handsome, efficiently staged, on Distler’s finely-detailed set. Toni-Leslie James costumes are superb, as is York Kennedy’s lighting. Baikida Carroll’s score is a jazz and blues fusion, punctuated with some real period music, and that little upright piano on the stage gets a work out.
The performances across the board are excellent. It was a treat to see Tony Award winner Cleavant Derricks from Dreamgirls and Slider as Wining Boy and Roscoe Orman from Sesame Street as Doaker. I found Christina Acosta Robinson’s performance to be exceptional.
Be warned: The Piano Lesson is almost three hours long, and the best elements of the drama appear in the second act. The journey, punctutated by steady staging and solid production values, plus fine acting, is a milestone for the playwright August Wilson and Hartford Stage.
Hartford Stage presents The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. Directed by Jade King Carroll. Scenic design by Alexis Distler Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by York Kennedy. Sound design by Karin Graybash..Music by Baikida Carroll. Music Director: Bill Sims, Jr. Cast: Toccarra Cash, Cleavant Derricks, Clifton Duncan, Galen Ryan Kane, Roscoe Orman, Christina Acosta Robinson, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Elise Taylor and Tyra Harris through November 13. For tickets: 860-527-5151 or www.hartfordstage.org
Mark G. Auerbach studied theatre at American University and the Yale School of Drama. He’s worked for arts organizations and reported on theatre for newspapers and radio.