In Dorothy Dittrich’s play The Piano Teacher: Lessons on Life and Love we observe two women’s very different experiences of grief and loss through a gently developing friendship. The concert pianist Erin, intensely depressed and emotionally frozen to the extent that she is unable to resume playing the piano, shows us raw, intolerable grief and loss in its immediacy. In contrast, in the piano teacher Elaine we are introduced to a woman who has lived within her grief so long, its pain has turned to a dull ache to be endured.
Erin is in crisis; her needs are immediate and her character dominates the stage as a result. Megan Leitch’s physical embodiment of Erin’s staggering depression conveys the exhaustion inherent in loss and grief. The marvelous performance of Caitriona Murphy as Elaine generates an intriguing degree of interest in part due to the mildly hidden nature of the character’s struggle. Elaine is a woman caught in self-delusion, believing that she has accepted her arthritic condition which prevented her from pursuing the greatest joy of her life; to play piano professionally. This complexity is finely written by Dittrich and skillfully adopted by Murphy as we experience the confusion within Elaine’s own embattled mind throughout the play. Murphy exhibits the simmering, veiled grief of Elaine perfectly, with a tilt of the head and a smile as if to say “everything’s fine”. It is the third character, Tom, who leaves the audience wanting for more. Tom, played effectively and amicably by a delightful Kamyar Pazandeh, appears to serve a purpose in the play which may have been intended, as a new love interest to Erin, to evoke envy in Elaine as she sees Erin start to move through her grief while she remains immobile. This results in Elaine’s own crisis and finally, true confrontation with her loss. But just as we start to learn about Tom’s life, his dialogue is shut down and we are left mildly perplexed.
Moving to the physical elements of the play, the intentional design of the audience seating, with half the audience on one side and the other on the opposing, required the play to be blocked so that the audience would miss none of the emotional experience and dialogue of the characters. Although I can appreciate the skill in arranging the movements of the actors to accommodate the two-sided audience, for this play, given its highly emotional story and subsequent demand upon the actors, I would have liked to experience a more traditional front facing arrangement. I wonder if this may have allowed greater intimacy with the characters, including lingering focus on their facial expressions, so we could have seen clearly and consistently their emotional states. Unique were the floor-to-ceiling wires, creatively used as props by the actors during transitional scenes. It would be interesting to see how this effect translates to a traditional front facing setting. Equally effective were the lovely musical pieces strategically inserted into moments within the story, some beautiful and expressive, with others, like the piano duets, adding a playful touch just when the characters and the audience needed a lift.
Towards the end of the play, it is clear that Erin is on her way to healing from her loss, as we see her confidently sit at a piano at a formal concert ready to perform again. But are we satisfied that Elaine was healed through her relationship with Erin? Does it matter? This is one of the many aspects of Dittrich’s play which makes it interesting and thoughtful. In The Piano Teacher Dittrich reveals life’s disorder, and through character development shows us that things most often do not tie up fully or neatly. Dittrich’s sensitively written characters show us that movement through grief is possible. It offers hope, telling us we don’t have to remain emotionally paralyzed. That much is clear, and that is enough.