The truths taught in “The Piano Lesson” are that family legacies can be neither repressed nor discarded. The other maxim offered by the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is that there is clearly a home on commercial television for serious, literate theater.
Opened up just enough to not look like a filmed play and with its text edited — largely for the better — to fit the demands of TV, this production nonetheless remains faithful to Wilson’s powerful, provocative, spiritual work.
As was the case on Broadway (and, previously, at the Doolittle Theatre in L.A.), the playwright’s poetic words are given a spectacular performance by Charles Dutton in the play’s central role.
Wilson and Dutton reunite with director Lloyd Richards (who has staged Wilson’s other plays), as well as several cast members who worked on the various stage productions.
For such a profound play, the story is remarkably simple. It’s set in Pittsburgh in 1936, in the home Berniece (Alfre Woodard) shares with her uncle Doaker (Carl Gordon), a veteran railroad man, and her young daughter Maretha (Zelda Harris).
Dominating the house is the family’s heirloom piano, its surfaces covered with intricate designs that literally, as well as figuratively, have been carved in blood.
Berniece’s grandfather, a slave, carved these panels in his owners’ piano when his wife and son were sold to another family.
Berniece’s husband was killed in the process of stealing the piano from the white family years later.
And it is precisely that precious piano that has drawn Berniece’s spirited brother, Boy Willie (Dutton), from Mississippi.
A knock-about his whole life, he has come north with his sweet but dim friend Lymon (Courtney B. Vance), along with a truckload of watermelons.
Boy Willie plans to buy the family land from the descendants of the old plantation owners with the proceeds from selling the watermelons — and the piano.
Berniece, though too haunted by the instrument’s brutal history to play it, nonetheless objects fiercely to Boy Willie’s plans, and the sparring siblings both threaten violence to get their way.
“You can’t sell your soul for money,” Berniece yells at her brother in what may be the play’s key exchange.
“I’m not talking about my soul,” he responds. “I’m talking about selling a piece of wood for some land.”
Before the issue is settled, matters of family legacy, history and memory are thrashed while ghosts — again, both figurative and literal — must be exorcised. It’s a story that speaks directly to the black experience in the U.S. — and to virtually anyone with a family heritage.
Dutton is electrifying as Boy Willie, a man who can sing with Lymon, Doaker and his ne’er-do-well uncle Wining Boy (Lou Myers) one instant and howl in anger at his sister’s obstinacy the next.
Woodard, usually a standout, is less successful, always seeming too modern for this character.
The rest of the cast is first-rate, as is the production. Richards is an effective small-screen helmer, aided by Paul Elliott’s dynamic camerawork.
Wilson, meanwhile, has cut out much of the verbiage that dragged down the play onstage, while adding some key scenes that expand the story and develop the characters. And the music — by Dwight Andrews and Stephen James Taylor — plays an integral role in the pic, providing both cultural context and mood.
As television programmers reevaluate the merits of tabloid TV movies and ripped-from-the-headlines fare, an impassioned play like “The Piano Lesson” points to an inspiring alternative. Making no concessions to the mass TV audience, this production should serve as inspiration to other ambitious producers.