There is nothing supernatural about the terrific production at McCarter Theater of “The Piano Lesson,” the 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by August Wilson — despite the very real presentiment in it of a ghost. As significant as is the emotionally stirring but also chillingly spectral atmosphere created by director Jade King Carroll, we are also made aware of the very real and visceral changes that are taking in this Pittsburgh home in 1936.
For starters there is the spectacular impressionistic setting by Neil Patel in which the atmospherically lighted homes of Pittsburgh’s Hill District loom and are contrasted against the realism of the interior of the home. The main thrust of the action centers on an estranged brother and sister, the grandchildren of slaves.
Attesting to a rich family history are the faces of railroad employee Doaker Charles’ (John Earl Jelks) grandparents sculptured on the piano, the most prized family possession. The play’s central conflict arises when Doaker’s widowed niece Berniece (Miriam A. Hyman) refuses to even consider selling the virtually unplayed piano so that her brother, Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams), can buy land on the property once owned by their family’s slave master.
Carved out of sorrow by the great-grandfather whose wife and child were sold to another master in exchange for the piano, the piano has become a family symbol, forever rooted in the memories of separation, pain, and even death. Accompanied by his fugitive friend, Lyman (David Pegram), Boy Willie has arrived from the South with a truckload of ripe watermelons to sell and a dream of finally buying his own farm with the accumulated proceeds that he hopes will include money from the sale of the piano.
Both family friends and others — including Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter, Maretha (Frances Brown), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks), Doaker’s “Sportin’ Life”-like brother, Boy Willy, and even Lymon’s trollop-for-a-night Grace (Shannon Janee Antalan) — get a good tossing about thanks to Wilson’s intriguing, ghost-embedded plot.
Ghosts and apparitions are major forces and have played important roles in other Wilson plays, in particular “Gem of the Ocean,” a highlight of McCarter’s 2005 season. Interesting to recall is that Carroll served as intern under that play’s director, Ruben Santiago Hudson.
In the subsequent decade she has gone on to be a much lauded award-winning director also serving as dramaturg for the seminal recording of the Wilson’s entire Twentieth Century Cycle for WNYC.
Carroll’s unfussy but meticulously nuanced direction brings a rewarding credibility to the variously weird, romantic, whimsical, and ferocious elements in the play. There are also just enough bluesy musical interludes and fine background sound and scoring (the latter credited to Bill Kirby and Baikida Carroll respectively) to offset the play’s tendency toward narrative excess and its two hour, 40 minute length. Curiously this production runs 20 minutes shorter that the also excellent 2012 revival produced by New York’s Signature Theater. Not a complaint.
The rather hokey but wonderfully theatrical exorcism resolution gives lighting designer Edward Pierce a chance to shine as well as to prompt a few shivers from us and even more particularly from the characters whose once torn apart lives are now braced for a cataclysmic renewal. Boy Willie may be a little more than a hurly-burly bag of winds, but Williams makes us see him as sadly heroic. Pegram’s performance as Lymon is notably endearing for its lack of sophistication, especially in the light of his misplaced romantic gestures toward the vulnerable Berniece.
Jelks is terrific as Doaker, the family’s stabilizing force. Hyman, a 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, is a revelation as Berniece, a juicy role that has already been played superbly by others. How refreshing therefore it is to see Berniece’s haunted heart re-authenticated beautifully and with so much verve. There are also fine performances by Owiso Odera as Berniece’s preacher-suitor and by fifth-grader Brown as Berniece’s daughter. Also stand-out is Derricks as the hustling piano-playing Wining Boy.
Within the canon of Wilson’s plays that cover the African American experience in the 20th century, and particularly those in which the natural world is invaded by the supernatural, the characters of “The Piano Lesson” (the fourth play in the cycle) perhaps strike the clearest and brightest notes. And director Carroll has gotten her fine company to play them all memorably.
The Piano Lesson, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through February 7. $25 to $94.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.