August Wilson was never regarded as a particularly romantic playwright. But after witnessing one melt-worthy moment in the current Off Broadway revival of 1980’s The Piano Lesson — at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center through Dec. 16 — you’d swear he had a hidden sentimental streak. It involves only the briefest of kisses and two dots of perfume, but it’s as powerful as any of his pages-long, emotionally wrought monologues.
Breathtaking bits like that are what make Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s harmonious production of Wilson’s ’30s-set play really sing. (The Piano Lesson is the fourth entry in the late playwright’s Century Cycle, a 10-play decade-by-decade chronicle of life in 20th-century black America.) A Tony winner for Seven Guitars (the ’40s play) and a now-frequent director of Wilson’s work, Santiago-Hudson certainly knows his way around Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where nine of Wilson’s 10 dramas are set. This time, Brandon J. Dirden plays Boy Willie, who stirs up a heap of trouble — and possibly the ghost of a former slave owner — when he arrives on his sister’s doorstep with a truck full of watermelons and a plan to sell the family’s heirloom piano. But the ”piece of wood” represents their legacy — literally. Carved into the spinet are intricate renderings of their grandfather, grandmother, and their family’s history. Never mind that sister Berniece (Roslyn Ruff) won’t go near the thing.
Fortunately, Santiago-Hudson also knows how to assemble a versatile ensemble of actors and musicians: Be it an a cappella spiritual or a piano-fueled boogie-woogie, music is essentially a supporting character in this play?serving at various moments as entertainment, elegy, and even exorcism. James A. Williams — recently seen in the Signature Theatre’s My Children! My Africa! — displays fierce resolve and paternal strength as the siblings’ uncle Doaker, who shares his home with Berniece, her daughter (Alexis Holt), and the piano. As an old-before-her-time widow, Ruff possesses the perfect combination of bitterness and tenacity. And perhaps best of all is Tony winner Chuck Cooper (The Life) as Doaker’s ”big recording star” brother Wining Boy. His bluesy drunken ode to his recently departed wife, Cleotha, is heartbreaking. The original music is by Bill Sims Jr., but the lyrics are Wilson’s: ”Tell me how long/ Is I got to wait/ Can I kiss you now/ Or must I hesitate.” Truly romantic. A?
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)
Opening date: Nov. 18, 2012; lead performer: Brandon J. Dirden; writer: August Wilson; director: Ruben Santiago-Hudson; genre: drama, revival