'The Piano Lesson' review: It haunts anew

Roslyn Ruff as Berniece (left) and Alexis Holt

Roslyn Ruff as Berniece (left) and Alexis Holt as Maretha in "The Piano Lesson." (Credit: Joan Marcus)

Of the 10 works that August Wilson left before he died in 2005, "The Piano Lesson" -- despite its 1990 Pulitzer Prize -- always seemed one of the lesser, more conventional segments of his great decade-by-decade cycle of 20th century black America. No more.

The revival at the Signature Theatre, which presented a season-long retrospective of his work in 2006, reveals this as richer and more emotionally complete than ever before. The play, set in the '30s, has always been genuinely haunted, with a real ghost that, in previous productions, seemed more like a device than an integral connection to the black journey from the South to Pittsburgh.

The first-rate production has been directed with meticulous care and a fantastically musical ear by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Brandon J. Dirden balances self-interest and hope as Boy Willie, who has come to reclaim his legacy -- a specially carved piano for which family members were once sold. Roslyn Ruff is exquisitely levelheaded as his sister, and the whole splendid cast balances quicksilver mood changes and overlapping emotions. The play asks, "What good is a legacy?" This revival is its own answer.

WHAT "The Piano Lesson"

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org

BOTTOM LINE Magnificent revival of haunting, haunted play

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