Review: ‘The Piano Lesson’ Shakes the Playhouse Rafters

Clockwise from lower left: Larryah Travis, Aaron Smith, Emmett Saah Phillips Jr, and Tiffany Johnson. Photo: Des Moines Community Playhouse.

Writer: Michael Morain

Like all the plays in August Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle, “The Piano Lesson” takes place in the playwright’s hometown in a specific year – in this case, 1936, near the end of the Great Depression. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning snapshot of a particular place and time.

But its characters lean in opposite directions, toward the future and the past. One member of the Charles family wants to keep a hand-carved piano that’s been passed down for generations. Another wants to sell it and use the proceeds to buy some Mississippi land their ancestors used to farm for their enslavers.

Everybody else on stage – and in the audience – is caught in between in the sweeping new co-production from the Des Moines Playhouse and Pyramid Theatre Company, through Feb. 19 at the Playhouse. It’s a family drama, ghost story and history lesson all rolled into one.

It’s also long, at nearly three hours. During Sunday’s performance, I wished I could read a few scenes at my own pace, like a novel, but I enjoyed watching the characters come to life – and afterlife – under the direction of Pyramid co-founder Ken-Matt Martin. He’s spent the last few years at cutting-edge theaters in Chicago and on the East Coast, and it shows.

From the get-go, Emmett Saah Phillips Jr. bursts onto the stage as Boy Willie, the fast-talking dreamer who wants to sell the piano and delivers reams of dialog to make his case. Tiffany Johnson plays his stubborn sister, Berniece, a widow who says just as much with fewer words.

They’re equal sparring partners, surrounded by Berniece’s young daughter (Larryah Travis) and a pair of story-swapping uncles (Daron Richardson and Aaron Young, who puts his deep bluesy singing voice to good use). Beyond the family, there’s Boy Willie’s friend Lymon (the charming Ryan Collier) and a saucy young woman (Colo Chanel) they meet on the town, plus a preacher (Clifton Antoine) who wants to marry Berniece.

Several of the actors have taken memorable turns in earlier Pyramid productions around town, including Wilson’s “Fences” in 2014, so it’s great to see them at the Playhouse, where the creative team can work its magic. Here, the Charles family’s house is full of authentic details, by Chicago-based scenic designer Sydney Lynne, and effectively haunted, with sounds by G. Clausen and lighting by John Pomeroy. 

By the time they summon their powers for the show’s dramatic end, Berniece doesn’t need to worry that the piano will rouse the spirits. They’re already wide awake.

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