Christopher Swan, Donna Gerdes and Megan DeLay in Banyan Theater Company’s The Piano Teacher.
When the curtain rises on Julia Cho’s The Piano Teacher (now playing at the Cook Theatre in a Banyan Theater Company production), the audience is at first lulled into a sense of old-fashioned coziness, as the elderly woman at center stage begins talking in gentle, bemused tones directly to us, even coming out into the auditorium at one point to dispense cookies. What could be more reminiscent of a certain kind of dimly remembered past than the somewhat shabby, fusty room she lives in, or the way she begins to recollect the many children she taught piano there over more than 30 years? Chances are we all have a Mrs. K., as she calls herself, in our lives, even though we may have almost forgotten her.
But that sense of familiar wellbeing gradually, moment by moment, dissipates as Mrs. K (Donna Gerdes, looking like an aging gamine and delivering a poignant performance) moves beyond the cookies, tea and fond memories of small children to talk about the husband she lost, and as we see the loneliness she faces now. It’s that loneliness, and a curiosity about whatever happened to all those little ones from so long ago, that lead her to dig out an old list of names and numbers from her piano bench and start making phone calls to her past students.
She hits gold at first, catching former pupil Mary Fields (Megan DeLay) by surprise but nevertheless eliciting a positive reaction as the sympathetic Mary agrees to pay her a visit sometime. Most other calls go ignored. But there is the phone that keeps ringing in Mrs. K’s empty, echoing house, only for her to find no one at the other end when she limps across her living room to answer. Who is calling—perhaps even terrorizing—an old piano teacher, and why? And what is there to learn about Mr. K and the time he spent in the kitchen with those children waiting for their lessons?
Our minds might immediately go to a certain place with that question, especially in light of the recent Sandusky child molestation trial in Pennsylvania. But playwright Cho is more subtle than that in her rendition of how innocent children—including, at one time, Mr. K himself, who came from a small, foreign country where brutal wars were the pattern—can be marked forever, passing on a terrible secret that Mrs. K wants to deny. But once another former student (Christopher Swan)—her “prodigy” who has gone horribly wrong somehow—shows up, it’s impossible to feel cozy anymore in Mrs. K’s room or her existence.
In the Banyan production, tautly directed by Jim Wise, the three actors converge both quietly and more explosively on a Richard E. Cannon set that perfectly portrays Mrs. K’s world. Gerdes, who spends a great deal of time on the stage alone with her monologues, is the one who dominates the evening, but DeLay fulfills her role satisfyingly and Swan, playing a character both scary and sad, has a strong impact in the Act II climax. The whole play is a frightening reminder of how history repeats itself, in personal as well as public ways.