Legacy flows through stories with 'The Piano Lesson' at Syracuse Stage

Review: Family, tradition and ghosts of the past haunt the stage during the performance of August Wilson's play, which runs until Nov. 9.

Editor's note: This review originally appeared at Green Room Reviews on October 25, 2014.

August Wilson’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama tells all the right stories.

Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, The Piano Lesson mainly tells the story of a feud between brother and sister and the rightful thing to do with the family heirloom, an eerie piano.

Boy Willie, an impulsive farmer from the South, wants to sell it, whereas his sister, Berniece, a widowed single mother who now lives in Pittsburgh, wants to keep the piano right where it is. In the constant bout, the siblings (along with their two uncles and a close family friend) tell tales of yesteryear, all while warding off an unfriendly ghost from the family’s past.

The play, which is the fourth installment of Wilson’s 10-part “Century Cycle”, is an excellent mix of heavy topics with a hint of comedic elements.

This is the seventh production of Wilson’s cycle that Syracuse Stage has produced.

Co-produced with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Syracuse Stage’s production of The Piano Lesson was spellbinding.

Director Timothy Bond (who has directed three of Wilson’s plays prior to this) and his creative choices brought the play to life. The combination of ambient gin-mill jazz music and quick light flickers gave the production just what it needed to haunt and delight.

At the forefront of the production’s cast was Stephen Tyron Williams as Boy Willie. As the fast-talking sharecropper, Williams commanded the stage. Triumphantly tackling a heap of monologues and some added physical comedy, Williams’s dynamic performance made it easy to love Boy Willie, but hate his intentions.

Although all of the characters had strong moments, the play really benefited from the two comic reliefs of the story, the jet-setting musician, Uncle Whining Boy, and Boy Willie’s shy Mississippi running partner, Lymon.

Played by G. Valmont Thomas and Yaegel T. Welch respectively, the two did a great job with delivering simple, chuckle-worthy moments that did not take away from the show’s intensity but added to the layers of stories.

One of the most compelling moments was the singing of “Berta, Berta” near the end of act one. With rhythmic foot stamping and table pounding, characters Boy Willie, Lymon, Doaker (played by Derrick Lee Weeden) and Wining Boy’s rendition of the old prison song was powerful and effective enough to generate a hefty applause when it ended.

The play, which ran for three hours, did feel long at parts but was still engaging through its entirety. Parts could have been trimmed, but it wasn’t completely necessary, as it didn’t take away from the flow of the production. Each character told his or her story in the right amount of time with little drag about them.

At the end, when the subplots of the show come together, it’s an honest picture of the dynamics in a family and how each person values the life they live. Ultimately, the story groups the ideas of old time legacy with the changing modern thoughts through the gripping anecdotes.

The Piano Lesson will run from Oct. 24 to Nov. 9.

Photo by Michael Davis

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