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In the theater, when a character lays claim to an iron-clad memory, the audience is usually in for a rude awakening. And when someone utters the heart-palpitating question, “Really, what is so wonderful about honesty?” the rest of the show may be spent waiting for the walls to come crashing down.
For the debut of its 30th season, in the aftermath of the unceremonious departure of Jason Southerland, newly installed Next Theatre Company artistic director Jenny Avery chose Julia Cho’s “The Piano Teacher.” This unsettling work examines the root causes of psychological trauma, the nasty consequences of self-examination and the devastation brought about by confrontations. It is a solid choice for both Ms. Avery and Next, as it continues the theatre’s long tradition of thought-provoking, provocative productions.
The opening is set in the suburban living room of widowed, retired piano teacher Mrs. K (Mary Ann Thebus of Next production “Well”). The sweet, gentle old woman welcomes the audience, treating them to a sentimental monologue (and cookies, to those in the front row). She ruminates on her life – her marriage, her childhood gift for playing the piano, and the young students she taught throughout the years – all the while swearing she remembers everything as if it happened yesterday.
In a decision based either on boredom and loneliness or on a deeper-rooted desire to discover a long-hidden, devastating truth (Ms. Cho leaves it up to the audience to decide), she comes across her old student list. She reaches out to them in a seemingly innocent attempt to see if she had any impact on their lives.
Keith Pitts’ scenic design is an insightful, faithful recreation of a prototypical grandmother’s living room: the window blinds and sterile color of the tiny kitchen are in stark contrast to the violet paint and flowered wallpaper of the living room. This is for good reason – the kitchen represents another world, the physical analog of which is her now-grown students’ own dwellings, where former students carry on phone conversations with Mrs. K in her living room. All the while, the old piano sits off to the side, untouched, like a ghost with secrets to share.
Seasoned director Lisa Portes (“In the Blood” at Next) expertly paces this slow-burner. The pace picks up frantically later on, when Mrs. K has encounters with two of her former students (Sadieh Rifai and the unsettling Manny Buckley). The three actors, while immensely talented performers, seemed a half a degree off their chemistry on opening night. Mr. Buckley was so effective it might have worked better had he held back just a bit. They will no doubt connect more fully after a couple more performances and become a tour de force.
“The Piano Teacher” is an impressive, important dissection of the psyches of the young and the old, and the highlight of this journey is Mary Ann Thebus. On why she began writing plays, Julia Cho mused, “There was nothing more exciting to me than seeing a beautiful monologue not just spoken aloud, but inhabited.” Ms. Thebus fully inhabits a character in the twilight of her years, one whose walls are on the verge of crumbling.
“The Piano Teacher” runs through Dec. 5 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes. For tickets, call 847-475-1875 x2 or visit nexttheatre.org.