THE PIANO LESSON, Congo Square Theatre Company, at Chicago Dramatists. August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning drama focuses on an emotional tug-of-war over a fantastically carved and decorated piano, an heirloom from the days of slavery bequeathed to an estranged brother and sister. Boy Willie, who's still stuck in the south, wants to sell it so he can buy the land where his ancestors were chattel. Berniece, who's in Pittsburgh, refuses to part with what's to her a family album and a symbol of their suffering.
The plot matters far less than the people in this play, the inaugural production of a new African-American theater. The dialogue is true enough to turn the audience into eavesdroppers. Aaron Todd Douglas makes Willie a real life force--a rascal beset by destiny. Libya Pugh is galvanizing as the sister, a woman grown tough by preferring survival to love. And fiercely focused work comes from Derrick Sanders as a good-hearted migrant from Mississippi, J.J. McCormick as a boozing bluesman with an excuse for everything, and Charles Michael Moore as the beleaguered family peacemaker.
But along with the talk comes a plot that veers between farce and ghost story and ultimately self-destructs. Ron OJ Parson's staging can't balance the conflicting directions, playing the moment and losing the momentum. The family quarrel becomes a sitcom spat, making Wilson's irrelevant and unearned ending even more inconclusive.