The Piano Lesson

Brandon Dirden, Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper, and a top-notch cast make sweet music in Signature Theatre’s superlative revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

Chuck Cooper, Jason Dirden, Brandon Dirden, and Roslyn Ruff in <i>The Piano Lesson</i>
Chuck Cooper, Jason Dirden, Brandon Dirden, and Roslyn Ruff in The Piano Lesson
(© Joan Marcus)

The men of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, now receiving a superlative revival under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction at the Pershing Square Signature Center, can surely sing the blues!

The first act of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play features four of the actors in a foot-stomping, gloriously harmonized a cappella rendition of a song about working on Parchman Farm, a Mississippi prison notorious for entrapping African American men to serve as laborers. It’s not just a song, though; it symbolizes the hard and often unjust life of men like Wilson’s fast-talking protagonist, Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden).

It is 1936 and Boy Willie has returned to Pittsburgh with his friend Lymon (Jason Dirden) and a plan to buy a plot of land from members of the family that once enslaved his great-grandparents. However, he meets resistance from his sister Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), since Boy Willie wants to raise the last part of the money he needs by selling the family’s piano, an instrument which has a history and value to it that goes beyond mere sentimentality.

Fortunately, the top-notch cast does justice to Wilson’s well-defined characters and lyrical language. Brandon Dirden captures all the swagger and optimism of Boy Willie, letting us see his fierce determination as well as the traits that help keep him a likable, sympathetic figure. The actor’s real-life brother, Jason Dirden, delivers a similarly layered performance that is frequently charming even as Lymon’s shortcomings are brought to the fore.

Ruff has a powerful presence, with a measured gait and countenance that belies the raging emotions that start to slip out as the play progresses. James A. Williams as Doaker, Boy Willie and Berniece’s uncle, conveys much of his character through non-verbal mannerisms and subtle changes in facial expression.

Chuck Cooper is a hoot as Wining Boy, and the Tony Award-winning performer gets to ably show off his musical prowess in two solo songs. Eric Lenox Abrams gives dimension to Avery, particularly in a riveting monologue about how he was called to become a preacher. Rounding out the terrific ensemble are the young Alexis Holt, as Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter Maretha, and Mandi Masden as Grace, an attractive young woman whom Boy Willie picks up at a bar.

Michael Carnahan’s striking set gives a jaggedly unfinished look to the visual environment, while piano sculptor Vinnie Bagwell provides an impressively detailed design for the piano that is the object of so much contention within the play.

Composer Bill Sims Jr. and sound designer David Van Tieghem work together to establish a haunting aural atmosphere that is appropriate to a work that weaves supernatural elements into the story. Similarly, lighting designer Rui Rita helps to sell the play’s chill-inducing climactic scene, which brings everything to a head in a dynamic and thrilling fashion.

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The Piano Lesson

Closed: January 20, 2013