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Review: Music at the heart of August Wilson's 'The Piano Lesson'

From left, Sati Word as Lymon, Kim Sullivan as Wining Boy, Bryant Bentley as Boy Willie and Alan Bomar Jones as Doaker. 
Published Jan. 22, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — The Piano Lesson is a long haul — three hours-plus on opening night — but it has some of August Wilson's richest characters and most memorable scenes. As is so often the case in Wilson's 10-play cycle on African-American life in the 20th century, music is at the heart of the matter.

It all comes together in the American Stage production when Doaker (Alan Bomar Jones), a railroad cook, and his brother, the "rambling gambling" bluesman Wining Boy (Kim Sullivan), and their nephew, Boy Willie (Bryant Bentley), and his friend, Lymon (Sati Word), gather around the kitchen table over a bottle of whiskey. All four men did time at Parchman Farm, a prison in Mississippi, and as the stories unfold they break into a grunting, foot stomping work song — "O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah" — that builds into a frenzied, soul-shaking symphony. It's one of the most powerful moments in American theater.

Wilson's play, set in 1936, is a meandering, wool-gathering affair, full of pungent digressions — a favorite: Doaker's disquisition on ham hocks — but it boils down to a brother-sister battle over an old upright piano. Standing in the parlor of Doaker's house in Pittsburgh's Hill District, the instrument has artful images of ancestors carved into its wood. As Doaker says, "You got to go back to slavery time" to understand the tangled, tragic family lineage that the piano represents.

Berniece (Tanesha Gary), who has been living with her uncle Doaker since the death of her husband, clings to the piano as a precious family heirloom, though she no longer plays it. That puts her in conflict with her pragmatic brother, Boy Willie, up from Mississippi with a truckload of watermelons to peddle and a scheme to sell the piano, which he and Berniece co-own as a legacy from their father.

"You can't sell your soul for money," says Berniece, whose harsh, unwelcoming stance toward her brother takes a while to become clear; she blames him for her husband's death.

"I ain't talking about selling my soul," says Boy Willie, who has a chance to buy farmland back home and make something of himself. "I'm talking about trading that piece of wood for some land."

This grand dilemma is resolved in a wild finale that resorts to the supernatural — when all is said and done, The Piano Lesson is a ghost story — in a not entirely satisfactory way, but getting there is an amazing journey, full of Wilson's folk wisdom on everything from working on the railroad to the importance of a man's silk suit ("The women will fall out their windows they see you in a suit like that"). Bentley's Boy Willie is unrelenting from the moment he bursts into the house at 5 o'clock in the morning. He's more boyish than menacing, as Boy Willie is sometimes portrayed, but his performance is still riveting. Gary's Berniece is a convincingly strong, wounded woman.

It's pure pleasure to take in the exchanges between Jones and Sullivan, Wilsonian veterans: Doaker is a slyly comedic presence, while Wining Boy's charismatic flash fades into alcoholism. They're matched by ranney, who is wonderful as good-hearted Avery, a preacher courting Berniece. Word's girl-crazy Lymon is a lean, rawboned hick who thinks he'll stay a while in Pittsburgh because the sheriff in Mississippi is looking for him. Brandy Grant plays Grace, a city girl who beguiles the country boys.

The direction of Mark Clayton Southers keeps everything well in hand in Wilson's opus, and he adds a few apt touches, such as a prelude that has Berniece's 11-year-old daughter, Maretha (Shakenya Clark on Friday; she alternates the role with Chloe Jackson), at the piano in the haunted house. Frank Chavez's finely detailed set — love the brickwork — is complemented by Jerid Fox's impeccable period props that include an icebox and working stove. Saidah Ben Judah did the excellent costumes.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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