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Theater Review: Julia Cho’s The Piano Teacher in Costa Mesa, California

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Survivors of atrocities — from wholesale genocide in Germany, Cambodia, or Rwanda to molestation and domestic violence at home — carry that evil for the rest of their lives. In Julia Cho’s superbly crafted The Piano Teacher, premiering through April 1st at South Coast Repertory, the playwright provides sympathetic study of the effects of living in denial of these experiences, letting oneself be innocently pulled into their currents, or seeking haven behind their disguise as “just stories.”

In Kate Whoriskey’s pitch-perfect staging, The Piano Teacher further cautions that children — whom Cho describes as “pure imagination walking around in skin” — are as susceptible to the poisonous effects of horrific stories as they are to the lingering effects of secondhand smoke. Most importantly, however, she demonstrates that great storytelling continues to find its true haven in the world of theater.

To usher us through this rewarding and riveting experience, Ms. Cho has created a harmless, retired piano teacher named Mrs. K (Linda Gehringer, making the most of a golden opportunity to define a complex new addition to theater literature). Mrs. K is a kind, cookie-nibbling neighbor lady “many years” into widowhood. From the arpeggio door chimes to the wedding ring she still wears, she appears cheerfully resigned to her solitude, warm beneath a comforter of memories from her years helping children discover music. From her dilapidated armchair she tells mundane recollections from a quite forgettable life, winning our hearts with the kind of simplicity Wallace Shawn’s Lemon begins the more controversial but similarly woven Aunt Dan and Lemon.

In the process of sharing with the audience some souvenirs of those happy days, she finds the address book she used to track her students’ progress. Its scented reward stickers activate images of those tiny faces and she decides to call some decades-old phone numbers in the slim hope of catching up with some former pupils. She eventually will reunite with two of them: Mary and Michael (Toi Perkins and Kevin Carroll, providing haunting interpretations in their SCR debuts). They will in turn reunite her with aspects of that earlier time that she may or may not have understood.

The storytelling prowess displayed in The Piano Teacher would only be diminished by further specifics, but the multi-layered beauty of the play can be glimpsed in something as deceptively simple as the central character's name. In Mrs. K., Ms. Cho not only suggests the integral role of a Mr. K, she hides any nationality or ethnicity the full name might carry. Unintentionally, but deservedly, she also invokes the eerie worlds of such masters as Kafka, Poe, and others who often used a single character to identify their characters.

For her part, designer Myung Hee Cho takes what might have been constraints of the production concept and turns them into complementary statements in their own right.  Walls that must be left bare for upstage reveals tell of a home without family photos, paintings, or bookshelves. It is, in fact, a household turning its back on its history. That same wall, arcing like a concert hall band shell, recalls the world of musical performance. Lighting designer Jason Lyons has created a beautiful palette of cues and specials to articulate the focus and intensify the drama. Stage manager Jamie Tucker calls the shifting illuminations with sly precision. Only a couple of unnecessary sound cues in act one feel out of place, as tiny retreats from confidence in the power of the spoken word to paint a complete world in story.

South Coast Repertory, which launched such current staples of American theater as Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, Margaret Edson’s Wit, and Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, can add another script to that list. For her part, Ms. Cho has given the American theater new proof of its power and relevance. As she artfully reminds us that hidden in plain sight are negative forces that must be dealt with, she steps forward as a positive theatrical force we look forward to dealing with often in the years ahead.

CREDITS: by Julia Cho, directed by Kate Whoriskey WITH Kevin Carroll, Linda Gehringer, Toi Perkins PRODUCTION Myung Hee Cho, set and costumes; Jason Lyons, lights; Tom Cavnar, sound; Deborah Wicks La Puma, music consultant; Megan Monaghan, dramaturg; Jamie A. Tucker, stage management  World Premiere  Commissioned and developed by South Coast Repertory

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