FREDONIA - The voice of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson speaks loud and clear on the stage of the Bartlett Theater, on the campus of the State University of New York at Fredonia.
The production is of Wilson's play ''The Piano Lesson,'' which repeats this afternoon and next weekend, as well.
The play is long, lasting nearly three hours, and its nature is operatic. Each of the principal characters gets a substantial aria in which he or she explains his point of view and the history of his life, while the conversations, quarrels and group activity are the choruses. Indeed, everyone in the cast is called upon either to play an instrument or to sing, or both.
The play deals with the African-American Charles Family. Doaker Charles, a conductor on the railroad, is the owner of a small house, in Pittsburgh, in the mid-1930s. Living with Doaker is his widowed niece Bereniece, and her daughter, Maretha.
The action begins when Bereniece's younger brother, Boy Willie arrives, having ridden for two solid days from the deep south with his friend Lymon, in Lymon's truck. The two have acquired a truck full of watermelons, which they plan to sell in Pittsburgh, where such delicacies would not have been readily available in the days before refrigeration was commonly available.
Boy Willie plans to take his money from selling watermelons, and add to it the money he plans to make by selling a beautiful antique piano, which he and Bereniece have jointly inherited from their parents. His intention is the use the money he gets, to purchase the land on which the family's ancestors were held and forced to work as slaves. To own that land which once owned his ancestors is, to him, almost a religious quest.
Bereniece is determined that the piano, into the wood of which are carved faces and events from the family's past, is a keeping of the family's traditions and values. Soon conflicts develop between brother, who wants to sell the past, and sister, who wants to preserve it. Everyone around them is drawn into the conflict, including, it seems the ghosts of ancestors past.
The play is difficult in some places in the script. The accents of the characters aren't always easy to make out, especially because a number of characters have unusual names. But, the power of these lives, either trying to build a future on their joint past or trying to cut away the past in order to have a future, is brilliantly constructed.
Daniel Astacio was especially powerful as Boy Willie. The character is full of occasional lies and possible crimes, and the actor kept us wondering when he was flim-flamming us and when he was speaking from his heart.
Siobhan Hunter also was powerful as Bereniece, a woman ready to stand toe-to-toe against anyone and anything that threatens her and her family, and yet filled with pain for her dead husband and her family's painful past. The role is double cast, and at some performances, Nakiya Peterkin plays Bereniece.
The rest of the cast is David A. Quinones as Doaker, Alex Grayson as Lymon, Dominique Kempf as Maretha, and Joshua Johnson and Nicholas Bernard, playing alternately as Avery, a man who wants to court Bereniece, if she can move past her dead husband. Also, Eric Wilson as Wining Boy, a cousin who was a successful singer who once made records, but who has fallen too much in love with past successes to arrange any future ones. Vaughn Butler was Grace, a woman who is brought home alternately by Boy Willie and Lymon, and who recognizes the degree to which the home is torn apart by what is going on there.
It's a strong, powerful production, which requires some investment from the audience, and won't just tell you pretty stories. I enjoyed it very much.