THE PIANO TUNER | LIFELINE THEATRE
WHEN Through 3/25: Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 5:30 PM
WHERE Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood
What’s remarkable about Daniel Mason’s luminous 2002 novel, The Piano Tuner, is the way he’s taken obvious literary antecedents–the most prominent being Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, though there are also echoes of Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster–and created an original, engaging, and timely tale. The same is true of James E. Grote’s smart, moving adaptation for Lifeline Theatre, cunningly directed by Jonathan Berry.
Set in 1886, the novel depicts the intertwining of two men’s destinies. Mason describes the piano-tuner protagonist, Edgar Drake, as a “man whose life is defined by creating order so that others may make beauty.” Cordial but diffident, straightforward but socially awkward, Drake begins with just two passions in life: pianos and his wife, Katherine. All that changes when he receives a request from the British War Office to leave London and travel to Burma’s rebellious eastern Shan states to tune a rare piano. Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll has transported it to the outpost he’s established there, but the humidity has rendered it unplayable. Carroll is the only Brit who’s managed to work within the intricate network of Shan warlords and princes, and he uses that as leverage to get his way. “It is much easier to deliver a man than a piano,” he notes in his request.
Mason, who has a degree in biology from Harvard and has attended medical school, spent a year studying malaria on the border between Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma). And malaria figures in the book–Drake survives a nasty bout once he arrives at Mae Lwin, where Carroll is posted. Grote doesn’t include that episode in the script, but he duplicates the feverish quality of Mason’s prose; little is exactly as it appears in this land without discernible order. The subtext of both the novel and the play is the absolute necessity and yet unreliability of overarching narratives, which give meaning to the incipient chaos of our lives. Some narratives involve art and beauty and are usually benign, but when they clash with the British colonial imperative–the narrative of absolute power–the results are not happy.
Grote’s two acts echo the halves of Mason’s novel. The first depicts Drake’s decision to leave England–a decision supported by Katherine, who urges him to pack his dress tails in case he’s asked to play the piano, though Drake protests he’s merely a tuner. On his journey he encounters a man who claims he went deaf after hearing an otherworldly tune from a mysterious woman. Soldiers on a steamship tell him that the Kurtz-like Carroll stopped marauding bandits by playing a Shan love song on his flute. Eventually Drake realizes that these tales are “less what each soldier knew was true than what he needed to believe.” For young men occupying a hostile land, the notion that music alone might turn hearts is powerful. And at least one scene–soldiers hunting tigers kill a Burmese boy–suggests the novel’s anticolonial underpinnings.
Carroll enters the story in the second act. Like everything else in the play, he’s ambiguous–a man who uses medicine and music to make peace with his Shan neighbors but whose motives are never entirely clear. Still, Drake is enchanted by the beauty of both the place and Carroll’s mistress, Khin Myo, and begins to blossom as a man of passion. When Carroll asks him to play the newly tuned piano for a prominent Shan prince, Drake finds a reason to wear the tails Katherine packed. He takes the final step away from his orderly life when Carroll requests his help with an unauthorized treaty between the Shan princes and a notorious warlord.
This story takes its time, particularly in the somewhat languid first act. But each of its interludes builds to a whole that’s heartbreaking in its inevitability. And though Mason clearly favors the forces of art over the power of militarism, he honors the complexity of his characters.
So does this Lifeline production. As Carroll, Kurt Ehrmann is tantalizing, a charismatic enigma. Patrick Blashill does a stellar job as Drake, conveying the yearnings beneath his rumpled but painfully courteous demeanor, unfolding his inner conflicts with subtle but affecting grace. When Drake first explains the piano’s workings to Carroll, Blashill reveals the poet inside the technician. Shole Milos delivers a smart, layered performance as Captain Nash-Burnham, the spit-and-polish military man who occupies a middle ground between the cavalier Carroll and the clueless British bureaucracy. Fawzia Mirza upends the stereotypes of silent Asian women–Khin Myo speaks nearly perfect English and often voices what Drake is thinking before he does. And Melanie Esplin’s self-possessed Katherine is far removed from the cliche of the tremulous Victorian housewife.
Though elements of the story call to mind Mary Zimmerman’s staging of Silk at the Goodman two years ago, Lifeline doesn’t have the space or the budget for grand epic sweep. But Alan Donahue’s sets and Kevin Gawley’s lighting create a misty twilight world, a golden, fluid environment of rattan walls and silk hangings. All of Berry’s adult performers but Blashill play multiple roles with precision. And Joshua Horvath’s outstanding sound design evokes the foreign rhythms of Burma–which ultimately hypnotize Drake. Like the crew members in Homer’s Odyssey, a tale Carroll loves, the piano tuner wants to “stay there with the lotus-eating people, feeding on lotus, and forgetting the way home.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.