Lessons in life from a piano teacher

Erin recalls every detail of the afternoon her husband and son died in a car accident – how early on, she had an inexplicable urge to look out the window; how she delayed calling a friend because she didn’t want to seem foolish; how it was exactly 7:53 p.m. when she got the phone call that stopped her life. Anyone who has been through a tragedy knows how seemingly irrelevant details — the colour of a hospital chair, the position of the hands of a clock — stick in the mind.

It’s the gradual piling on of such details — small, simple realities — that makes playwright Dorothy Dittrich’s play about grief, loss and healing, ring true for me.  By the time The Piano Teacher reaches its climax, with Erin — arms raised in a Christ-like pose – releasing her dead (“let them go, let them go”), I believe in her. In fact, in a deep and visceral way, I feel like I have accompanied her on a journey through most of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s classic five aspects of grief  – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, into a glimpse of acceptance.

Besides that grounding in psychological truths, a number of factors add to the play’s believability for me. Actors Megan Leitch (Erin) and Caitriona Murphy (Elaine) play the kind of characters we might encounter in real life: Elaine the warm, wise nurturer we’d be lucky to have as a mentor or counsellor; Erin the brilliant, nervy achiever we might admire from afar. Costume designer Jenifer Darbellay dresses them in ordinary but meaningful clothes — Elaine in loose, sweeping garments that suit her open, relaxed persona, and Erin in a don’t-care baggy cardigan and unfashionable pants, the camouflage of depression. Sound designer Patrick Pennefather keeps the music spare and meaningful, mostly what you’d hear in a piano teacher’s space, but always with the hint of rich orchestral magnificence in the background. David Roberts’ simple set with its generic sofa, kitchen table and chairs could come from any ordinary home; only the strings that serve as doorways add an element of fantasy.

But it’s the interactions between the two main characters and their simple, clear dialogue that truly sweeps me into their world.  Elaine has a born counsellor’s intuition about how to gain her “student’s” confidence and when and how far to push. (Tea, conversation. and instructions to touch the piano every day are a non-threatening start.) Erin, hunched and closed up with pain, is realistically mistrustful, ready to flee at the hint of a wrong move. As would be expected, the two musicians find immediate common ground in music, tossing off insider jokes about Beethoven (“I always thought he was a bit of a bastard”) and Chopin (“His music reminds me of cold, clammy hands.”)  One of the most convincing aspects of Dittrich’s script is her portrayal of the intricate dance that women perform as they move toward friendship and intimacy. Elaine ventures into pie-baking for Erin (“I wanted you to have something sweet at the piano”) and Erin responds with a bouquet of tulips for her teacher. The ebb and flow between the women as they get to know each other could be drawn from real life – Erin’s healing triggers Elaine’s sadness about her own losses, leading to Erin taking her turn as sympathizer and encourager. It’s what women do for each other.

The script gives us some bonus side-truths – not essential to the story, but adding to its believability.  Erin’s marriage was not as perfect as she’d like to remember it, for example. She allowed her love for 20th-century music to be subsumed into her husband’s preference for classical. And when she wanted a window on the landing, to him, it was “not a priority” – marriage-speak for “this will never happen.”

But the strength of the story is in the dialogue, and simple as it is, its subtle shadings reveal how people really communicate. Erin admits to sparing most sympathizers the true depth of her anguish by telling them she feels disoriented, like she “got off the bus at the wrong stop.” But, trusting Elaine, she tells her how it really is: Like getting off the bus at the wrong stop “after having your head blown up into bits and handed to you in a paper bag.”

It’s a testament to the strength of the depiction of the two women that the introduction of handyman Tom (Kamyar Pazandeh) does not destroy the play’s essential truth. Tom – handsome, sunny, available, a Scrabble player no less– is a fantasy figure who does not belong in an otherwise realistic work. There are no exchanges between him and Erin that give a sense of true connection between them; even their quarrel seems to bounce along the surface. If Tom’s role as a second “helper” who brings Erin back into life is important to the play, perhaps it should be filled by someone who is not so obviously there to be a love interest.

But the point of The Piano Teacher is to explore the grief process, and this it accomplishes brilliantly. Very few people will face the kind of tragedy that shatters Erin, but we will all encounter grief and loss in our lives. Toward the end of the play, Elaine tells Erin that her young students try to avoid playing difficult passages, and asks how she handles the hard parts. Erin replies:  “One note at a time.”

A real-life lesson to take away from this play. It may come in valuable sometime.

— Carol Volkart

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7 thoughts on “Lessons in life from a piano teacher

  1. As someone still struggling with the competing notions of criticism as evaluative VS criticism as providing context and social analysis, I must say I really feel you’ve hit the balance beautifully here, Carol. I think you’ve also provided us with a terrific example of how to approach a piece’s perceived weaknesses in a sensitive but honest way. If you had a regular column, I’d read it.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad it might be helpful. As for the regular column, I do a semi-regular blog, about community, gardens, books, etc. I haven’t posted much yet about the course, but expect I will be doing that in the next while. It’s http://mountdunbar.blogspot.ca/ if you want to check it out occasionally.

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    • And this week on People Who Should Have Googled Their Classmates… Melissa finally figures out that Carol spent 40 years working in print journalism as both a reporter and editor. Oh Carol, you must have gotten a chuckle out of my “If you had a regular column, I would read it” comment. Apologies for my ignorance!

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  3. Never! I would never laugh at a compliment, but only appreciate it deeply. It was even better if you didn’t know my background. But back at you — I have appreciated your very intelligent and discussion-provoking comments in class and the links you have provided throughout.Now we’re even!

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  4. Carol, I loved this review when I first read it and I still love it now. The details in your first para make me wince – aren’t they perfect and how did I miss collecting them? You bring me so much in this review – everything from reminding me of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, to the show-don’t-tell details on the costumes and set (generic sofa, kitchen table and chairs), all the way to the warm, rich depth of your understanding of Dorothy Dittich’s message, your simple, clear language, your glorious use of humble verbs (hunched, closed up) and the perfect balance between description, commentary and context. This review resonates with the wisdom of its author. I wish I had written it.

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