'The Piano Lesson' strikes a chord

Penumbra's take on August Wilson's play is powerful

THE PIANO LESSON
at Penumbra Theatre
through March 16
651.224.3180

EURYDICE
Ten Thousand Things, at Open Book through March 2;
at Minnesota Opera Center March 7-9
612.203.9502

The beauty of the blues lies in its capacity for delivering metaphor within its rhythms: the metronome of the human heart, the chugging of the steam engine driving railroad cars, and the grinding machines that drew America from its agrarian phase into industrialization. August Wilson's The Piano Lesson draws on the blues for inspiration, all the while profoundly evoking the labor, the blood, and the displacement that made the music come into being.

A right to sing the blues: Greta Oglesby and Ansa Akyea
Ann Marsden
A right to sing the blues: Greta Oglesby and Ansa Akyea

All the action takes place in a single home in 1936 Pittsburgh. Doaker (James Craven) is a lifelong railroad man who lives with his niece Berniece (Greta Oglesby) and her daughter. Their peace is rocked by the arrival of Berniece's brother Boy Willie (Ansa Akyea) and his buddy Lymon (Ashford Thomas), both of whom are fresh off a stint in a prison farm.

Boy Willie has big ideas about selling a truckload of watermelons to raise dough to buy the land of the Sutter family, who once owned the Charles clan to which they all belong. He lacks the funds to seal the deal, but he has his eyes set on a means to make it happen: the ornately carved piano that sits in the Charles living room, which Boy Willie figures he can sell. Berniece will have no part of it, and a massive family squabble ensues that eventually reveals immense amounts of history reaching back to the family's memory of enslavement.

All of which sounds well and good, but director Lou Bellamy's production reaches deep and provides the crackling feel of a definitive take. Each performance is precise and purposeful (Oglesby carves out Berniece with such distinction that, by the end, we feel we've known her for decades), and this staging wholeheartedly embraces the melodramatic aspects of Wilson's scenario with stunning internal logic. It's no accident that various characters keep seeing a particular ghost, and in a crucial ending sequence, we draw together the raging American tempest that the blues often so coolly depicts. Wilson was bold enough to show that redemption comes from embracing history without excusing any aspect of it; this production follows him into that stark, revelatory place.

SARAH RUHL'S REIMAGINING of the Eurydice myth adds a dad to the mix and kicks up all sorts of unexpected repercussions. The basic outline remains: Eurydice (Sonja Parks) and Orpheus (Marc Halsey) are in love (in this case, they're yapping with puppy love, though Parks and Halsey also capture the carnal side of that lovely experience). They get hitched, but Eurydice dies just after their wedding (here semi-seduced by Nasty Interesting Man, played by Leif Jurgenson, then croaking accidentally). Orpheus travels to the underworld, where he is offered a deal: He can walk back to real life, with his love behind him, provided he doesn't look back. If he does, the deal's off. Needless to say, he looks back. But here we have a twist: Director Larissa Kokernot has Parks play this one subtly, but there's no doubt we have at least a suggestion that Eurydice wanted to stay in the underworld with her beloved father.

We first meet Dad (Steve Hendrickson) early on, when he appears as a deceased shade reading aloud a letter he has composed to his about-to-be-betrothed daughter advising her in the homely arts of domestic life (he sadly laments having no means of delivering it). Ruhl poignantly plays with the outlines of the classical Greek conception of the hereafter; when Eurydice arrives with an empty suitcase on the other side of the mortal divide, Dad builds her a room out of string, then commences to teach her words, notions—all the things that she left behind.

It's phenomenally moving stuff, and no less so when Eurydice opts to return to her post-mortal half-life, only to find the landscape unalterably changed. By now we've been treated to ample portions of humor (Jurgenson stands out as a slapstick sharpshooter), boundless sadness, and squishy business about fathers and daughters, the crappiness of male-female relations, and our eternal yearning for the grass that grows on the other side. Death becomes her (Eurydice), in other words. Then it doesn't, not at all.

 
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