Friday, February 2, 2018

Cardboard Piano is Agonizingly Poignant

Where should forgiveness begin and end? 


Pictures speak louder than words. 

That is the question at the heart of Cardboard Piano, a gutwrenching play about the liminal nature of morality, kindness and grace when they are applied in the harshest imaginable circumstances. Who is deserving of mercy in light of the worst crimes? What acts are truly unforgivable? Who is allowed to define what is and is not moral, and the appropriate way to heal from immoral acts?

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

These impossible questions are asked through the story of Adiel, a Ugandan girl, and Chris, the daughter of white American missionaries, who are deep in the throes of a young romance. The girls are truly in love and hold a secret wedding for themselves, intending to run away together to a safer place than the small Ugandan village they call home, where they will certainly be ostracized - and Adiel may be killed - if others learn of their sexuality. Their night of joy and bright future is soon interrupted forever with knowledge of Chris's parents' disgust at their relationship, and with the entrance of Pika, a child soldier on the run from his horrible master. The girls help Pika and promise to care for him, especially after he saves them from the leering intentions of his former commander. Pika is not as forgiving as the girls are of his sordid past once he learns of their sexuality, killing Adiel in his revulsion. The play resumes ten years later as Chris returns to Uganda and once again meets Pika; both of them have been irreparably changed by their encounters, and the rest of the show wrestles with how they should interact and what their roles in atoning for the drastic consequences of their young life are for the future. I won't say more about their dialogue, but it's truly fraught, and it will leave you with many heavy thoughts - as well as some small hope for human nature - by the end of the play.

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

This is a difficult show with so many weighty themes vying for priority - homosexuality (especially outside of westernized countries); white savior complexes; the damagingly judgmental yet also incongruously (but limited) redemptive qualities of Christianity; the victims of rebellions and civil wars; and a community's capacity (or limits) for forgiveness and tolerance. It wouldn't work without a strong cast, and Cardboard Piano features a good one. Roles are given equal weight and stage time, making this a truly collaborative enterprise. As always, Ansa Akyea brings gravitas and depth to his roles as the rebel commander and Pika as an adult. His nuanced portrayals allow us to humanize the devastating reality of his characters, and his monologues as Pika provide some profound food for thought. Kiara Jackson is radiant as Adiel and Pika's wife Ruth, with a calm, placid yet passionate performance. She warms up every line she speaks, and I can't wait to see her in more shows. Adelin Phelps is explosive as Chris. It's clear that Phelps feels this role to the tips of her fingernails, and her physical presence is dynamic as soon as she steps on stage. Michael Jemison is heartbreaking as young Pika and Adiel's cousin Frances. He has such a youthful, wistful vibe, and you can't help but feel for the painful place in which his characters reside.

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

Signe V. Harriday has done a terrific job of directing this fragile story, and I want to make sure to give her commendation. There is so much going on in this narrative that it could easily become overwrought, but with her deft supervision we are able to feel each layer of the story. Foster Johns does a great job of overseeing dialect coaching, with notable accents from most of the actors. Sara Wilcox's costume design is vibrant and simple, as is the set design from Sarah Brandner, keeping the focus on the complex plot unfolding on stage. And a shout out to Lyndsey Harter, who does a bang up job of stage management and keeps the show moving along at a very clippy pace.

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma

I want to give huge props to Park Square Theatre for tackling this play. I wasn't sure what to expect from the description and by about 15 minutes in it was clear that I was in for an impossibly dark emotional rollercoaster. This production of Cardboard Piano is nuanced, thoughtful, and has clearly been invested with a lot of intention and care. What could feel like an overly stereotyped or inordinately dramatic plot line instead feels real, impactful and brave. Cardboard Piano is not afraid to ask audiences hard questions - about their beliefs, their stereotypes, their culpability in propagating horrific practices overseas, and the hard work we all must do to create a more just and fair world. I was surprisingly moved throughout this performance (thanks in part to the terrific cast), and I know I will be thinking about the nuances of the story of Cardboard Piano long after the lights close at Park Square on February 18. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.