Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 5, 2010
You can’t hide from your past. But you can’t hide behind it, either. In two Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas, the past is a millstone, a burden too heavy for a woman to bear; and these stubborn, strong-willed women refuse to leave it by the roadside and move on.
In Neil Simon’s 1991 “Lost in Yonkers ,” there’s mean Grandma Kurner, who’s had a lousy life. She grew up in Jewish in Germany, where she was beaten and crippled at a young age. She suffered a great deal of loss, burying a husband and two of her six children. In self-defense, she’s turned to steel, and her icy demeanor has crippled each of her remaining children, in varying and disturbing ways.
In “The Piano Lesson,” part of August Wilson’s ten-play, decade by decade chronicle of the lives of African Americans in the 20th century, Berniece is haunted by her roots and rooted in place. Her brother, a sharecropper from the South, has arrived on her Pittsburgh doorstep, aiming to convince her to sell the family’s ancestral piano, so he can buy the Mississippi land where their forebears were slaves. Berniece can’t even touch the piano, but she can’t let it go, either.
It’s 1936, her husband is dead, her little girl is growing up, a man wants to marry her. But Berniece can’t tear herself away from the pain of her past, which is clearly depicted in the intricately carved instrument. What ensues is some serious soul-searching, in this deep, rich, powerful piece of theater, rife with humor and music, colorful characters, lyrical language and profound insights.
Under the spectacular direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the Cygnet Theatre production is flawless. The cast is superb, each actor creating a full-bodied, raw, multi-faceted human. The set, lighting and sound are outstanding. This is a stunning, gut-wrenching, heart-rending theatrical experience that you dare not miss.
“Lost in Yonkers ” has plenty of characters, too: a petty gangster, a childlike woman, a hapless father, a breathless aunt. And two wisecracking kids, who are traumatized by having to spend ten months living with their nasty, crusty grandma, while their father seeks wartime work, so he can pay back the debts for hospital bills incurred while his wife was dying.
The Kurner family is a highly dysfunctional lot, and Neil Simon gives them plenty of laugh-lines. Most fall solidly in the Old Globe production, but the New York accents come and go, and not everyone has the requisite crackling, rat-a-tat, sarcastic sensibility. But there are many pleasures to be had in this first full production in the Globe’s dazzling new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.
Past and future, precedent and potential… in these plays and on San Diego stages.
“Lost in Yonkers ” runs through February 28 in the Old Globe’s new White Theatre in Balboa Park .
“The Piano Lesson” continues through February 28 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town .
©2010 PAT LAUNER