The Piano Teacher offers a portrait of one of “those brave ladies who taught us/ So much of art, and stepped off to their doom,” in the words of the late poet Donald Justice. Julia Cho, the author of this successful play, seems almost to have borrowed her characters, plot and atmosphere from Justice’s poetry and memoir about his childhood piano teachers; the following one in particular: On the piano top, A nest of souvenirs: paper Flowers, old programs, a broken fan, Like a bird’s broken wing. —And sometimes Mr. L. himself Comes back, recurring, like a dream. He brings Real flowers. Thin, Demanding, his voice soars after dark In the old opera between them. But no one sees the blows, only An occasional powdered bruise, Genteel.
The Piano Teacher is the story of just such a couple, as told by the surviving wife, Mrs. K, a lonely, widowed, retired piano teacher. (Donald Justice’s work also features a Mrs. K.) Luminously played by Elizabeth Franz, Mrs. K addresses the audience so intimately that she actually offers cookies to each person in the front row. We are enveloped in her warm, grandmotherly lap, drawn into the heart of her cozy home so effectively that we nearly fall asleep there, lulled by her gentle voice telling her gentle, slightly boring, slightly formulaic story. The story of a simple piano teacher devoted to each of her sweet but ordinary students; only one of which had talent amounting to genius... and he—here, at the first intimation of complexity, Mrs. K breaks off and stoutly returns to her rosier memories.
When complexity—human cruelty—finally does enter the stage, the effect strains the balance of the play’s mood and plot. Suddenly this is a play dedicated to undermining audience expectations of sensationalist drama: hints of deeply buried pedophilia eventually add to up a more ingenious form of molestation.
Taken in sum, it’s an effective story and Kate Whoriskey’s direction and Derek McLane’s scenic design bring it to life beautifully. The extraordinary Elizabeth Franz bears most of the responsibility and can enjoy full credit in what amounts to a tour de force one woman show for much of the play. Carmen M. Herlihy adds a terrific dose of vitality as a grown-up former student and provides the first allusions to the troubled past with fine subtlety.
When trouble makes its full appearance, it is in the person of Michael, played by John Boyd. Michael was Mrs. K’s lone pupil of genius and he returns to haunt her with terrible revelations about her late husband. It’s a highly demanding role, not least because of its brevity. Mr. Boyd’s performance of the disturbed young man borders on the formulaic: a manic yet formal delivery and overstimulated hands. This would amount to overkill except that his scarcely contained physicality threatens a bodily attack on Mrs. K—an attack which never comes. Here again, the audience experiences a healthy frustration of Hollywood expectations.
In the end, The Piano Teacher plays best in retrospect, where we can savor the extraordinary performances and the fine plot tensions at our own pace.