Theater Review: CARDBOARD PIANO (TimeLine)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 17, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Love never seems greater than when hate sets it off. Then, as if to prove its power, it finds so much to rise above. A huge hit at the 2016 Humana Festival of New American Plays and now making its Chicago premiere in a forceful staging by TimeLine Theatre, Cardboard Piano is an exercise in betterment over bitterness. Here is proof — if a play can indeed provide it — that, for what it’s worth, love wins out over time and rage.

Korean-born playwright Hansol Jung (Wild Goose Dreams, No More Sad Things) wants to show both the promise and pain of unconditional forgiveness. It’s the feat of pardoning that both purges anger and proves love — without forgetting the trespass. She depicts it on the smallest scale possible, among a handful of characters in an African township across 14 years. Mired in civil war and the homophobia encouraged by bigoted American evangelicals, northern Uganda is a killing field where any act of tenderness seems a crime against nature.

An unashamedly religious work that reinvents the Good Samaritan’s kindness to strangers, Jung’s two acts open and end with the same hymn. They’re bookmarks for the moral leap between. We begin on a New Year’s Eve that will usher in a new century and millennium: It witnesses a forbidden and impromptu lesbian and interracial marriage between visitor Christina Jennifer Englewood (Kearstyn Keller), daughter of white missionaries, and Adiel (Adia Alli), a local teenager. Not knowing its “future reference” and feeling stranded on their own island, the young women record the ceremony, knowing they’re on history’s cusp as much as their own.

Bursting into their truncated happiness is Pika (Freedom Martin), a 15-year-old soldier who declares himself a lost soul. But the mercy that the women show by rescuing him, including contemplating an escape to Tunisia, is paid back in blood.

In 2014, Christina, bearing the ashes of her father, returns to the church where a different wedding anniversary is being held in a sanctuary crammed with flowers. Inevitably, she faces a reckoning with Pastor Paul (Kai A. Ealy), the former thug who lethally ended their millennial marriage and now threatens to hurt Adiel’s gay cousin.

Chris finds herself caught in a wrenching intervention not unlike South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission established by Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela. At the same time, Paul must find his own “grace”: It’s not unlike the play’s title instrument, an artificial but altogether authentic example of a father’s devotion.

Echoing Shakespeare’s “Treat each man according to his worth and there’s none who’ll escape whipping,” Jung argues that, precisely because we don’t deserve mercy, we need it all the more. However unearned it may feel, it’s as human as we get to get.

Yet it also seems counter-intuitive to hold that, since the dead can’t forgive, it’s up to the living to do it. You could easily argue the opposite — that, since the dead can’t, survivors lack the “standing” to absolve their killers. In either case, as with Steppenwolf’s superb Grand Concourse, clemency is in the eye of the beholder.

Director Michelle Moe inspires four fine actors to capture their characters’ extremes at every possible peak. For each pivotal moment they drive home every hope or hurt that’s at stake. However short-lived, Alli and Keller’s once and future gay marriage thwarts prejudice as much as did Romeo and Juliet or Damon and Pythias.

Because Cardboard Piano is more a play of situations than action, some will find these 130 minutes more static than engaging. The final stage picture amounts to an apotheosis within a benediction. But it equally confirms how much of Jung’s drama plays like scattered snapshots from a constant war zone. What some will see as miracles in the making others may dismiss as arbitrary good or bad luck.

Still, we need to embrace our Samaritans where and who we find them. Happily enough, their advent remains entirely unpredictable. That’s hope for us yet.

photos by Lara Goetsch

Cardboard Piano
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2
(check first for schedule variations)
ends on March 17, 2019
for tickets, call 773.281.8463 x 6 or visit Timeline

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nikki Adelaide Smith January 18, 2019 at 6:17 pm

This s a beautifully written review. It enhanced my understanding of this drama.


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