Sunday, May 13, 2001

'Piano' teaches dramatic lesson




By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The next time Rocky Carroll decides to grace Cincinnati with a performance in an August Wilson drama — and cross your fingers that it will be soon — do yourself a favor. Be there. Bring your theater-loving friends.

        Mr. Carroll gave a Broadway caliber performance as fast-talking cock-of-the-walk Willie Boy in The Piano Lesson for the Children's Theatre for a mere two public performances at the Taft Theatre over the weekend.

        Piano Lesson's too-brief engagement underlines — again — Cincinnati's desperate lack of a mid-sized theater (800 to 1,200 seats to showcase non-musical theater.) The Taft is absurdly too large (forcing the actors to be miked to the hilt), the Jarson-Kaplan too small. We need something just right.

        Judging by the slow ticket sales, we also need audiences willing to return downtown.

        Piano Lesson is a haunting — and haunted — tale set in 1936 in Mr. Wilson's preferred location, Pittsburgh.

        Willie Boy has come up from the South with a truckload of watermelon. When he sells it all, he's planning to load the family piano on the truck and sell it.

        But ownership of the piano is shared with his sister Berniece (Linda Hodge-McLoud) and she won't sell.

        Their grandfather was a slave when he started carving the family story into the piano. Weddings, funeral, family portraits are all remembered.

        (More's the pity that two days of performances weren't deemed sufficient to go to the trouble of creating a piano that could tell its own story, and that too many of the seats in the Taft are too far away for it to work its power. The rest of Jay Depenbrock's set tells the story of a proud working-class family.)

        Willie Boy sees the piano as nothing but wood, for Berniece it's dipped in blood, for murder has been done for it, her father's included. “Mama polished this piano with her tears for 17 years,” she tells her brother, and that's worth something.

        Dipped in blood, indeed. Even as the curtain goes up, Willie Boy's disruptive arrival has disturbed more than the living. Spirits easily unsettled wake and the vicious old slave master — suspected to be a murder victim himself, for how could he fall down his own well? — takes to appearing.

        Piano Lesson wasn't a perfect production, suffering most in Ms. Hodge-McLoud, who was stiff rather than brittle.

        Mr. Carroll's performance would tower over greater problems than that. His career may be on TV (coming up next for him is reportedly The Agency in fall), but he was born for the stage.

        More than a decade ago he won a Tony Award nomination in the original Broadway production of The Piano Lesson playing Willie Boy's young sidekick Lymon.

        Deondra Means fills Lymon's tight shoes and silk suit nicely in this production and provides, with A.D. Davis as the siblings' uncle, first-rate support. But it would take an actor-as-force-of-nature to make the role a standout, and that's what Mr. Carroll is.

        It would be a joy to watch Mr. Carroll take on more of Mr. Wilson's poetic dramas.

        Mr. Carroll was credited with directing, and he credited Children's Theatre artistic director Jack Louiso for having a hand in the job. By the look of things, they both got out of the way and let August Wilson have his say.

       



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