may 2017 | Volume 155
Caitriona Murphy, Megan Leitch, and Kamyar Pazandeh. Photo by David Cooper.
Dorothy Dittrich’s new play, The Piano Teacher, has a lot going for it—in particular, lovely classical music and a beautiful performance by Caitriona Murphy in the title role. It also features nice sentiment about the power of music to heal. But in other areas it needs significant work to develop it into something more than just a bromide about how things that are damaged will inevitably get better.
David Roberts’ handsome modern set, with a baby grand at the centre, stands in for the homes of two women. Erin (Megan Leitch)—in two years’ deep mourning for the loss of her husband and young son—visits piano teacher Elaine (Murphy). A successful concert pianist, Erin has been paralyzed by her losses. She’s heard good things about this teacher and comes to Elaine for “lessons,” hoping Elaine can help her play again.
Elaine, at first feeling way over her head at having to “teach” a student far more adept than herself, proves to be a wonderful teacher, patiently guiding Erin slowly to the point where she can at least sit on the piano bench and touch the keys again. Her lessons are in fact more about life than music. In a series of monologues addressed to the audience, Dittrich has Elaine draw (sometimes too obvious) analogies between music and (Erin’s) life. Music has to have space and time. Music is a relationship. Music comes from and speaks to the heart.
Of course, Elaine has her own problems, which her sessions with Erin help her deal with. She had a promising career as a performer herself but arthritis in her hands cut it short. That’s when she turned to teaching. But she’s never gotten over the disappointment, and seeing Erin—who can play—somehow failing to take the opportunity to play makes her crazy.
At the end of the first act Dittrich introduces a third character, handyman Tom (Kamyar Pazandeh). Elaine has suggested to Erin that she do some renovations to her house, and Erin hires Tom to put in a large window. All this handyman, renovation, window stuff is way too on the nose. When Tom becomes the love interest Erin needs to get her to live again, the play moves, literally, from winter to spring.
A seriously underdeveloped character, Tom comes off as little more than a device. Dittrich gives him a halfhearted back-story, which doesn’t help, and Pazandeh hasn’t enough chemistry with Leitch to make convincing her relatively quick turn from deeply depressed to cheerfully ready to go again. Leitch has a powerful cathartic scene where she finally speaks of how her husband and son died, but it plays as a kind of non sequitur. Director Yvette Nolan hasn’t found the key to unlocking this part of the script.
Erin and Elaine’s relationship is much more interesting than Erin and Tom’s, largely because Elaine is the play’s most compelling character. Murphy brings a bright intelligence and charm to the role that outshines Erin’s dour grief and Tom’s nice guy earnestness. We’re happy to see Erin’s life turn around but it’s Elaine whose house we want to visit. And on top of that, Murphy plays the piano beautifully.
We should all be so lucky to have such a teacher.
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