What have we done to deserve a magnificent revival like the new Signature Theater production of “The Piano Lesson”? Set in 1936, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is positioned midway through his epic Century Cycle charting the black experience in America. This Depression-era drama finds a family that came north in the Great Migration bitterly divided over a piano that represents both their racial history and their promised freedoms. Under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s flawless helming, a brilliant cast makes this 1987 play live and breathe and sing for a new generation. Take notice and be advised, regional theaters everywhere.
At the time of the play, the Pittsburgh Hill District, where most of Wilson’s plays take place, is still a solid neighborhood of striving, working-class black families. That sense of well-being is reflected in Michael Carnahan’s unit set of the sturdy two-story house owned by Doaker Charles, in James A. Williams’s immensely likable person, a railroad man who shares it with his widowed niece, Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), and her 11-year-old daughter, Maretha (Alexis Holt).
It’s a home that looks comfortable, but in a no-frills, utilitarian way. Except for the upright piano standing downstage right, bathed in the honey glow of Rui Rita’s lighting — that actually looks like a work of art, with its powerful carvings of African-American faces in rustic settings.
But this household has lost its music, so the piano isn’t played anymore. Not even by Berniece, who was left it by her mother and who guards it like a religious icon for the family history that her great-grandfather, who was born into slavery, literally carved into the wood.
That’s fine with Berniece’s good-natured uncle, but not with Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden), her younger brother and the co-owner of the piano. Boy Willie and his friend, Lymon (Jason Dirden), have driven 1,800 miles in a beat-up truck so he can sell the heirloom and claim his share to buy a piece of land back home in Mississippi.
The battle between brother and sister for possession of the piano is powerfully staged by Santiago-Hudson and performed with electrifying tension by the actors. But this is a no-win contest, because both siblings have valid claims to the instrument. To Berniece, it holds the past history of the Charles family, along with the memories and music of their racial heritage; to Boy Willie, it offers a free man of color the chance to build a new future on the land his ancestors worked as slaves.
In Brandon J. Dirden’s galvanic performance, Boy Willie is something of a dark force of nature, a man whose primal needs have driven him a little crazy. Given the sheer ferocity of Boy Willie’s determination to get what he wants, it’s thrilling to watch Ruff’s strong-minded Berniece stand up to this scary, violent man and stare him down.
That struggle between brother and sister may be the dominant theme of the play, but there are many other narrative threads in Wilson’s richly textured work. When Boy Willie bursts in on his relatives, he and Lymon drag the dirt from the rural south into this northern urban household. That country mouse/city mouse disparity (amusingly conveyed by Karen Perry’s costume choices) provides an irresistible source of humor for Doaker and neighborhood friends who drop in to drink, gossip and make music.
Lymon, the innocent country boy played so winningly by Dirden, is no match for Doaker’s brother, Wining Boy (Chuck Cooper), whose flashy days as a musician and a gambling man may be far behind him, but who can still talk a hick like Lymon out of his money. Whatever money these country boys make from selling the load of watermelons they’ve got in their truck, some of it is sure to wind up in the hands of a fast girl like Grace (prettily played by Mandi Masden).
Wilson had an amazing ear for the colorful accents of plain folks talking plain talk. In Dirden’s charged delivery, Boy Willie’s heavily inflected speech is the voice of the rural south, so strong it could knock you over. But there are distinctive voices everywhere, from the warm tones used by William to deliver Doaker’s philosophy of life as a railroad man to the impassioned testimony of Berniece’s suitor, Avery (Eric Lenox Abrams, completely in character), describing how he got the call to be a preacher.
In a play that is essentially about getting your music back, the piano in “The Piano Lesson” is more than just a symbol. It’s also the instrument that helps people find the voices, and the feelings, they lost.
Once the music starts coming back into this haunted house, even Boy Willie manages to pick out a few bars of boogie woogie. But it’s Wining Boy’s mournful blues song of longing and loss — delivered in full voice and with spine-tingling feeling by Cooper — that keeps the piano where it belongs. Even if there’s no musical instrument handy, Wilson’s men will send up a roaring prison-work song to keep the old ghosts from coming back into the house.