In many ways, there are two battles going on in August Wilson’s play “The Piano Lesson.” The first is the one between siblings Boy Willie and Berniece over the fate of the piano, a cherished family heirloom. The other is a stylistic battle between naturalism and heavy symbolism. In director Seret Scott’s production at the South Coast Rep, the two styles never quite come together, transitioning instead from one to the other in a sometimes smooth, sometimes bumpy manner. Despite an underwhelming ending, the show has moments of great power, and boasts some memorable performances from its ensemble cast.
In the 1980s, August Wilson set out to write a play representing the African American experience in each decade of the 20th century. So far, he’s completed seven of them, and “The Piano Lesson,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, easily contains the heaviest metaphor, both figuratively and literally.
The title instrument represents the Charles’ family history; originally purchased in a trade for two slaves, ancestors of Boy Willie and Berniece, the piano was stolen by the siblings’ father, an act that cost him his life. The piano is the family’s heritage, and it’s both an inspiration and a burden.
Boy Willie (Victor Mack) arrives at his uncle Doaker’s house in Pittsburgh with the intention of selling the piano to buy the land his family tended as slaves. Berniece (Kim Staunton), however, has no intention of letting that happen, and this conflict forms the central debate that drives the play.
The other characters — including Doaker (Charlie Robinson), his nomadic brother Wining Boy (Al White) and Willie’s friend Lymon (Ricco Ross) — are all defined by their feelings toward the piano.
Robinson and White give standout performances, and the play’s most pleasing moments occur during the extended scenes of dialogue when the actors and director Scott allow the characters to emerge in all their complexity.
Mack gives a solid, energetic portrayal of Boy Willie, and Staunton endows Berniece with a poignantly hidden passion which can never be satisfied by her courtier, the aspiring minister Avery (Ted Lange).
The design elements here are mostly excellent: Ralph Funicello’s set and Dione Lebhar’s costumes evoke the 1930s setting without calling too much attention to the period.
Of all the plays in Wilson’s series, “The Piano Lesson” is least hooked into the politics of the moment in which it is set: The family history here is conflated into the war over the piano’s fate. And everything leads to a final confrontation, not just between Berniece and Boy Willie, but between Boy Willie and a ghost of the family’s past.
While the production captures the intimate moments of this ambitious play quite beautifully, it struggles with the more theatrical scenes, particularly with the abstract ending, which here seems overly restrained and literal.