The Piano Teacher: Bask in its music

Megan Leitch plays a grief-stricken artist in The Piano Teacher.

The Piano Teacher is honest, smart, moving, and exquisitely performed.

Sometimes, when people write about artistic expression, they bullshit. I’m thinking about Stephen Sachs’s play Bakersfield Mist, for instance. In that script, an art expert almost has a literal orgasm as he describes painter Jackson Pollock “making love” to his canvases. That’s nonsense, a juvenile misrepresentation of the artistic process.

But Dorothy Dittrich, who wrote The Piano Teacher, knows what she’s talking about. Dittrich is a musician and composer. In her play, Erin, a concert pianist whose husband and son have died tragically, comes for lessons with Elaine because “I can’t seem to play anymore.” Erin has the technique—her significant performing career is on hold—but she’s so traumatized that she hasn’t been able to touch a piano for two years. Erin comes to Elaine because Elaine has a gentle, accommodating way with her students.

Dittrich embraces music as a medium of communication, communion, and healing, but she doesn’t reduce creative expression by turning it into magical mumbo jumbo. In direct addresses to the audience, Elaine says, “Music is a language”, “Music is all about relationships”, and, most movingly, given the context, “The broken chord acts as a container for the melody.”

The underlying theme, of course, is grief, an experience Dittrich evokes with aching accuracy. “Things, they don’t make sense anymore,” Erin says, then adds, speaking of her husband, “Kevin was my home. And now he’s gone. Now I’m homeless.”

Throughout The Piano Teacher, Elaine behaves much like a good cognitive behavioural therapist. I don’t mean the set-up feels phony; Elaine is simply practical as she gradually desensitizes Erin. Erin’s first assignment is to sit on the piano bench—away from the instrument. Gradually, Elaine encourages her to move closer.

Within this process, Elaine’s kindness and Erin’s courage will make you weep. You may have to experience this moment but, when Erin hesitates to sit facing the piano, Elaine asks, “Would you like me to sit with you?” and Erin answers, “Yes”, there is so much compassion and gratitude in the exchange that it’s almost overwhelming.

It might not be so powerful, of course, if Dittrich hadn’t been blessed with genius actors in this production. Playing Megan Erin, Leitch’s every response is fresh and true. She makes the character’s exhaustion and terror palpable. And Catriona Murphy’s warmth, humour, and emotional depth make her perfect for Elaine.

Kamyar Pazendeh, a newcomer who is working all over town these days, plays Tom, the carpenter Erin hires to install a new window in her house. Pazendeh radiates a kind of butch charm that, if bottled, would be pure musk. As an artist, Pazendeh is as present as the others, but Tom is more of a functional character: Erin struggles with grief and Elaine must confront her own complicated feelings about the arthritis that ended her performing career, but Tom is more of an amiable plot device.

Speaking of mechanics, Act 2 of The Piano Teacher tilts towards the formulaic. Like a lot of theatrical storytelling, this script buys into the mythic healing power of catharsis. “Talk it out,” the plays tell us, “and you’ll be cured.” Real-life recovery is more complicated, of course.

Still, as a piece of writing, The Piano Teacher is an impressive accomplishment and director Yvette Nolan’s production for the Arts Club is gorgeous. David Roberts’s pale grey set is as meditative as the script. And Patrick Pennefather’s tasteful sound design seamlessly integrates the intimacy of actors’ piano playing with the full release of orchestral recordings.

In the script, there’s one tiny exchange that speaks to the beauty as well as the honesty and authority of Dittrich’s approach. Referring to the American composer Aaron Copeland, Elaine asks Erin, “What’s Copeland to you?”, and Erin answers, “Space.”

THE PIANO TEACHER By Dorothy Dittrich. Directed by Yvette Nolan. An Arts Club production on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre Wednesday, April 26. Continues until May 14.

For tickets, phone 604-687-1644, email boxoffice@artsclub.com, or visit http://artsclub.com/tickets/

 

 

 

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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