THE PIANO LESSON by August Wilson, directed by Alison Sealy-Smith, with Yanna McIntosh, Michael Anthony Rawlins, Ardon Bess, Walter Borden, D. Garnet Harding, Roy Lewis, Jajube Mandiela and Kim Roberts. Presented by Obsidian at the du Maurier Theatre Centre (231 Queen's Quay West). Runs to March 2, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, mats Sunday 2 pm and Wednesday-Thursday noon. $19.50-$40, stu/srs discount. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
The Piano Lesson tackles the deep but delicate question of how to acknowledge the past yet at the same time move beyond it. The Obsidian Theatre presentation captures much of the power in August Wilson's play, but script problems and a still coalescing production cause some trouble.At its core is a sibling tug-of-war between Boy Willie (Michael Anthony Rawlins) and Berniece (Yanna McIntosh) over an heirloom piano -- it used to belong to the whites who owned this black family -- that's carved with images of their black ancestors. Willie Boy wants to sell it to buy land; Berniece, though she won't play it and in fact fears it, wants to keep the piano. Both are haunted by the instrument and what it represents.
The lesson of the title isn't about chords and arpeggios, but, rather, how to value personal and familial history. Director Alison Sealy-Smith looks beyond the narrative to uncover the show's deep-seated emotions, but too-slow pacing in the first act keeps the tale from catching fire. While the direction in the second act is more successful, Wilson's abrupt ending leaves us wanting more of a resolution.
This is a play that involves storytelling, and the cast hasn't yet fully connected to the strength of the telling or the importance of actively listening to others' tales. Still, there's mesmerizing focus in McIntosh's simmering Berniece, distrustful of her own feelings of love and anger, and equally fine work from Walter Borden as her uncle Doaker, whose humanity resonates in each of his scenes, and from Roy Lewis as a born-again minister.
D. Garnet Harding brings a charming naïveté to Willie Boy's friend Lymon -- the tender scene between Lymon and Berniece is finely nuanced -- and Kim Roberts does a sassy turn as a good-time girl in a red dress. Rawlins only comes into focus halfway through the play, when Willie Boy's anger kindles the actor's work.