By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
As The Music Lesson opens, the houselights are dimmed, and a subtle illumination spotlights the hand of Irena (Jessica K. Peterson), a pianist and music teacher from Sarajevo. As she sits center stage on a white piano bench, her hand slowly begins to play an invisible keyboard one chord at a time. The imposing presence of an actual grand piano and violin at the back of the stage easily creates the illusion that music is the elegant apparatus of the musician, but this single hand held in midair reminds us of the palpability of the music itself. More than a metaphor, classical music becomes a tangible character in Florida Stage's production of The Music Lesson. It is sometimes both a weapon and a shield, at other times a refuge and something to be escaped. We see the characters struggle with music as a true character and not a prop. They fight it, ignore it, trivialize it, and fear it: "Music is like sleeping on knives," says Kat (Amy Love), Irena's student. "It makes me think of all the things that scare me."
But above all music is a language, and, as Irena says to her husband, Ivan: "Music is the only language you need." What fuels Irena is the belief that music is so powerful and pervasive it can change lives.
Irena and Ivan (Joris Stuyck) have taken refuge in Pittsburgh from their war-torn city of Sarajevo. In a chance meeting at the grocery store, the recently divorced Mrs. Johnson (Elizabeth Dimon) persuades Ivan to give her son Eddie (Ashton Lee) violin lessons. Ivan in turn volunteers his wife Irena to give Mrs. Johnson's wayward daughter, Kat, piano lessons. The play moves back and forth between present-day Pittsburgh and Sarajevo in the early Nineties. A strong part of these flashbacks is the appearance of Maja (Maggi St. Clair Melin), a young girl who was Irena's favorite student and became like a daughter to her. Maja, who was one of several children killed when a sniper threw a grenade onto a crowded playground, appears as an apparition in some of the play's most gripping scenes. Who could be more romanticized in a tale of war-ravaged Bosnia than children? Fortunately playwright Tammy Ryan has created a script that does not exploit the plight of children for its emotional impact but shows children as human beings trapped in conditions imposed by politics, geography, and society.
The Music Lesson teaches us that the country of childhood has no nationality. The desire to fit in and the need to feel safe and loved is universal. Through a series of scenes in which both Maja and Kat take the stage, the audience witnesses the girls' mutual struggle to be liberated from neglect, violence, and frustration in their respective societies. Overshadowed by her little brother, a child prodigy who is hurting from the separation of their parents, Kat is bitter and resistant to piano lessons. In an amazing scene in which Irena loses her temper and confronts Kat about her hostile attitude, Maja appears, shadowing the outrage and hurt that Kat unleashes. While Maja expresses her emptiness at not being able to go to school, Kat laments her overcrowded school and thoughtless teachers. The girls perform this striking duet, finally crouching with their hands over their heads -- Maja in terror of bombings and Kat wishing something would destroy her to end the pain she feels.
As Irena, Jessica Peterson is an engaging force throughout the play. Neither a valiant survivor of war nor a model teacher, Irena cowers, criticizes, and acquiesces in the face of daily life in her new country. She feels alienated by her husband's openness and enthusiasm about his adopted land. Irena often has panic attacks in which she loses touch with reality and is thrust into disturbing remembrances of Sarajevo. In one scene Ivan tries to calm her and offers her a glass of water. She responds, "Water -- I just want to drink a glass of water and not think if it needs to be cleaned or boiled." She is reliving her time spent in basements hiding from bombs. We see her simultaneously safe in her Pittsburgh apartment and in danger in a Sarajevo basement. This duality transforms The Music Lesson into a theatrically moving and meaningful experience.
Although the seats to the far right of the house do not give full view of the pianist and violinist at the back of the stage behind the modest living room set, the small stage is efficiently utilized. The piano bench, probably the most important prop, is a crucial point of dramatic action. The bench itself is a stage within a stage, at which the similarly unwilling student and teacher, Kat and Irena, act out their conflict. In one visually compelling scene, the stage lights go on and off, methodically illuminating a series of vignettes: Irena positions Kat's hands, corrects her posture. Each moment reveals frustration and incomprehension for both characters. Amy Love is convincing as the disdainful student. Her slouching, hateful stares, and eye-rolling paint the perfect portrait of the frustrated adolescent.