Cygnet plays ‘Piano’
By Charlene Baldridge
SDUN Theatre Critic
January 30, Cygnet Theatre Company opened the 2010 season with August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at the Old Town Stage. The near-perfect production, cast entirely with San Diego talent and staged by award-winning director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, continues through Feb. 28. This review is based on the matinee performance Jan. 31.
Set in 1936, the story concerns Berniece (Monique Gaffney), a young southern widow who lives in Pittsburgh with her uncle, Doaker (Antonio TJ Johnson), a railroad employee. Berniece is a serious and hard-working woman, not yet recovered from the death of her husband three years ago. She is raising a 12-year-old daughter named Maretha (Madeline Hornbuckle). The piano in question, which belongs to Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie (Mark Chriistopher Lawrence), dominates Doaker’s living room. Likenesses of their ancestors are carved into the upright face of the instrument.
The play begins when Boy Willie and his friend Lymon (Laurence Brown) arrive from the south with a load of watermelons, which Boy Willie intends to sell so he can buy the Sutton property that belongs to descendents of the slaveholders who owned the siblings’ ancestors.
Ownership of the piano is much more complicated, and Berniece is furious when Boy Willie tells her he intends to sell it. The ghost of the recently deceased Sutton haunts both the piano and Doaker’s home. Grandison Phelps III portrays the itinerant, piano-playing Wining Boy; Keith Jefferson portrays Avery, a preacher who wants to marry Berniece; and Tanya Johnson-Herron plays Grace, an easy woman Lymon desires.
Rife with music, argument and humor that proceeds from character, “The Piano Lesson” premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987 prior to its Broadway run in 1990. It received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. By turn each major character delivers a monologue that is similar to an operatic aria. Doaker’s is about working on the railroad. Avery’s describes his calling to become a preacher. Wining Boy’s concerns the Ghost of the Yellow Dog, following which all the men sing “Alberta,” surely a show-stopping moment in a play that sends shivers up and down one’s spine and ends with a supernatural bang. Even though the play is lengthy, no one left following Act I.
Sonnenberg’s design team comes through beautifully, creating a set that rivals the original production that played at the Old Globe prior to its move to Broadway. Eric Lotze’s lighting design, Megan Schmidt’s costumes, Jerry Sonnenberg’s realistic period home and George Ye’s sound provide support of the great story. The piano itself takes the grand prize for artistry of workmanship.
Wilson, who died in 2005, created a cycle of ten plays, set one per decade, that chronicle the 20th century African-American experience in America.
“The Piano Lesson”
Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.
Sundays, 7 p.m.
4040 Twiggs St., Old Town