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Theater review: The Piano Lesson 

Panoramic Pease Auditorium has been handsomely remodeled with nicer seats, larger aisles, and more legroom. Fittingly, the first CPCC Theatre production in the renovated hall, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, has become the centerpiece of CP's weeklong Sensoria celebration of the arts. The show has a fine cast and a director, Corlis Hayes, with the experience and savvy to deal with the peculiarities of the ultrawide stage.

The length and idiomatic language of the script are not so felicitously handled. Long stretches of Act 1 -- where Boy Willie and Lymon come up to Pittsburgh from the South, each with his own dream -- are simply unintelligible. Idiom and pacing are largely to blame. Last Saturday night's performance clocked in at 2:38 plus intermission, so there's no mystery why Hayes was pushing her cast to push the accelerator to the floor. Slower would be clearer, but it would have kept us in our comfy new seats past 11pm.

A large block of ticketholders inexplicably didn't show up, so Sue and I moved up at intermission from Row F on the aisle to Row D in the middle. Our adjustment was helpful, confirming to us that volume had also been part of the problem. As in Gem of the Ocean, there's more than a little hocus-pocus involved in the denouement, when Willie's sister completes what Reverend Avery has started -- an attempt to exorcise a ghost from the family's heirloom piano. That and all the more mundane conflicts coming to a boil in Act 2 make everybody turn up their voices from piano to forte.

Jonavan Adams captures the ambition, shiftiness, and warmth of Boy Willie beautifully, and Karen Abercrombie is more than sufficiently starchy and upright as the widowed Berniece, clinging to her memories and her beloved hard-carved upright. In an auspicious debut, Robert N. Isaac is a wonderfully credulous bumpkin as Willie's watermelon-selling buddy Lymon. Ericka Ross, as the girl he wins from Willie, has a citified wiliness that stamps her as capricious rather than trashy. Sporting the niftiest of Heidi O'Hare's costume designs, Sidney Horton captures all the irritating and admirable qualities of Avery, who wants a new church and Berniece's love with equal fervor.

Berniece and Willie's uncles echo the contrast of the younger generation. Doaker is the dependable, long-tenured railroad man whose life ticks along with pocket-watch precision, while Wining Boy is the family singer and drifter who guzzles up more than his share of Doaker's liquor -- a trait he comically shares with Boy Willie. Gerard Hazelton has more than sufficient jive to make Wining come alive, and John W. Price as Doaker, bless him, is proof positive against all attempts to hurry him up.

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