Dorothy Dittrich’s, The Piano Teacher: Lessons on Life and Love posits several questions about grief including: how do we continue to perform our lives after shattering loss?
The Piano Teacher explores this question through the relationship between Erin and Elaine, which initially seems absurd (even to the characters). However, Megan Leitch and Caitriona Murphy’s portrayals made the idea of a piano expert needing a piano teacher credible. In Act I, Erin is crippled by her “traumatic loss,” while in Act II, it is Elaine whose spiral into anger becomes debilitating. The conflict escalates between the characters, as the piece, like any composition, needs to be “pulled apart” and (re)arranged. Tom’s integration seems a convenient plot device, but I was willing to go along with it because Kamyar Pazandeh’s charming performance adds necessary levity to the story. However, Tom’s patience and affability in the face of Erin’s outbursts makes him seem flat and less inauthentic.
David Roberts’ minimal set design allows the characters to feature in the space. The grand piano’s singularly dark presence on the muted colour palate of the set, reinforces music’s centrality in the play. The strings stretched from floor to rafters create a maze of tactile threads, which nod to the play’s musical theme. As the play unfolded, I found myself wondering about the function of the strings, at times to the point of pulling me out of the story. In Act II, I began to see a correlation between the strings and each character’s emotional stance. When characters touch the strings, they confront their feelings, when they avoid their feelings, the strings become obstacles.
One area where The Piano Teacher falters is in the exclusive musical references. At times, the discussions of music seems like an inside joke. While many of the names dropped are familiar and the discussions are snarky (Beethoven is called a “bastard”), the meaning was clearer to audience members with a musical background. Augmenting the references with by clips of some compositions alluded to in the play, could elucidate meaning for patrons with limited musical fluency.
Comparing music to language and relationships, The Piano Teacher explores the music’s expressive powers and limitations. Relationships, language, and music each have the capacity to contain (but not suffocate) sufferers in periods of profound grief. However, sometimes that capacity is not realized. Sometimes grief mutes all expressive powers. In The Piano Teacher, the most authentic lines compare grief to getting off at the wrong stop and then “having your head blown to bits and handed to you in a paper bag.” Even as Erin, utters these words, Leitch’s performance underlines how inadequate the analogy. No analogy would suffice, since grief causes such disorientation. The Piano Teacher addresses the paradox of mourners who are compelled to speak the unspeakable.
In its best moments, Dittrich’s play use metatheatrical devices solve the problem of how to survive grief; sometimes mourners need the “space not to play” at least until they can “be in the space” with their grief.