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Stage Review

In tune with a family’s struggles

Showdown between siblings comes to life in Wilson’s ‘Piano Lesson’

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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NEW HAVEN — Anyone who saw the Yale Repertory Theatre’s sizzling 1984 premiere of the play that established August Wilson’s reputation, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ or the theater’s unforgettable 1985 production of “Fences,’’ starring James Earl Jones, can understand why Wilson so often turned to the Yale Rep when he was ready to introduce his creations to the world.

Now comes a stirring and dynamic new production of Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson’’ at Yale Rep, under the direction of Liesl Tommy, that can take its place among the theater’s finest presentations of Wilson’s work.

Tommy, who recently directed Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined’’ at the Huntington Theatre Company, gives her cast plenty of running room, demonstrating a shrewd grasp of the fact that one of Wilson’s great gifts as a writer was the flesh-and-blood vitality of his characters, however rambling they might be.

So even though it’s overlong (more than three hours), this “Piano Lesson’’ is bursting with life.

Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, the play depicts a familial showdown between a schemer and dreamer named Boy Willie (LeRoy McClain), and his iron-willed sister, Berniece (Eisa Davis). Boy Willie is determined to sell the family’s piano so he can buy a piece of land in Mississippi — the very land that the family’s ancestors toiled on as slaves — and get a fresh start to what has been a troubled life. Berniece is willing to do whatever it takes to stop Boy Willie from selling the piano. She also has her hands full raising a young daughter (played by Malenky Welsh) and trying to decide how she feels about the preacher (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) who is wooing her.

The battle between Berniece and Boy Willie takes place in the home of their uncle, Doaker (Keith Randolph Smith), where the piano now resides and is periodically played by a musician and family friend named Wining Boy (Charles Weldon). Boy Willie plans to remove the piano with the help of his callow, good-natured friend Lymon (Charlie Hudson III).

It’s not just any heirloom the siblings are battling over. The intricate carvings on the piano reflect both the family’s struggles and the nation’s shameful racial history. Generations earlier, their great-grandmother and her young son were sold by their white owner to obtain the piano as a present for his wife.

A short time later, the piano was carved by the great-grandmother’s husband with images of her, their son, and their wedding, along with images evoking the terrible moment when mother and son were taken away. Many years later, in 1911, the family took possession of the piano, albeit at a deadly cost to the father of Boy Willie and Berniece.

Now, Berniece believes that the house is haunted by the ghost of one of the slaveowner’s descendants. “The Piano Lesson’’ is marred by Wilson’s dubious decision to make a foray into the supernatural near the play’s end.

But on balance, this is a strong and searching drama. Over the years, Wilson’s plays have given many actors an opportunity to do their best work, and the current Yale Rep cast emphatically rises to that challenge. McClain is just terrific as Boy Willie, endowing him with the restlessness of a live wire, always crackling even when standing still. McClain is particularly spellbinding in a scene where Boy Willie makes clear how high the stakes are for him. “I got to mark my passing on the road,’’ he tells his sister. “Just like you write on a tree, ‘Boy Willie was here.’ That’s all I’m trying to do with that piano.’’

As Berniece, Davis delivers a beautifully modulated performance that ranges from weariness to anger to tenderness to a desperation that, while different in kind from Boy Willie’s, is equally compelling. They are ably supported by the remainder of the cast, and also by the design team, especially set designer Dede M. Ayite. One’s eyes are drawn again and again to the piano, with its haunting craftsmanship, and to the Pittsburgh cityscape that serves as a backdrop to the action, and a reminder of the family’s migration north.

In a playbill note, James Bundy, the Yale Rep’s artistic director, points out that six of the 10 plays in which Wilson sought to dramatize the black experience in the 20th century, decade by decade, premiered at Yale Rep. These included “The Piano Lesson’’ in 1987 and “Radio Golf,’’ which premiered in 2005, the year Wilson died.

Bundy also notes the key role played in Wilson’s career by the late Lloyd Richards, the longtime artistic director at Yale Rep. It was Richards who opened the door to a little-known writer who went on to become one of America’s most consequential playwrights. This fine production honors the memories of both of them.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THE PIANO LESSON

Play by: August Wilson

Directed by Liesl Tommy

Sets, Dede M. Ayite. Lights, Alan C. Edwards. Costumes, Jennifer Salim. Sound, Junghoon Pi.

At: Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven. Through Feb. 19. Tickets $10-$85, 203-432-1234, www.yalerep.org