Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: Grief and Metatheatre

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.

 

The Piano Teacher

Arts Club Theater Company

Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theater Centre

April 20–May 14

It is sometimes difficult to see the forest from the trees and yet, some moments in time remain more memorable than others as it slows and provides a crystalline clarity as we recognise the frailties that come with being mortal or appreciate the beauty within each moment.

The Piano Teacher is a play by Dorothy Dittrich and touted as being about the lessons on life and love. It is!

From the very moment that Act I begins, Megan Leitch who plays Erin, Catriona Murphy playing Elaine and Kamyar Pazandeh who plays Tom, create a gentle tension of heartbreak and loss that is connected by the power of music and love, as they weave their way through this remarkable story of grief, compassion and joy.

For any of us who have experienced the paralyzing effect of loss and grief, it is difficult to not open our hearts to Erin (Megan Leitch), as she walks on stage and shares how she lost her husband and son in a tragic automobile accident with the hope that Elaine (Catriona Murphy) the music teacher who is gradually losing her hands to arthritis, might light the path back to her music and the concert hall.

David Robert’s has designed a simple and elegant set complete with a baby grand piano that becomes the central point in the homes of the two women as they remind us of the frailties that we all share. As for Tom, he was a welcomed metaphor for distraction and rebuilding, and he offers a playfulness and an interesting human touch to contrast the stories of Elaine and Erin.

In the May Edition of Vancouver Theater, arts critic Jerry Wasserman wrote, “ the play has a lot going for it—in particular, lovely classical music and a beautiful performance by Caitriona Murphy in the title role. It also features nice sentiment about the power of music to heal. But in other areas it needs significant work to develop it into something more than just a bromide about how things that are damaged will inevitably get better”.

As a reluctant critic I am struck by how different each of us sees, hears, smells and feels each moment in this world that shapes who we are. This doesn’t make any of us more right or wrong or something good or bad. Depending on how we enter this forest will determine how we see it, and how we are moved by the gentlest of movements, nuance, memories or sound. I applaud Dorothy Dittrich for a brilliant play and for having the courage to allow the cast and an extremely talented creative team to take it and breathe life into The Piano Player.

If you walk far enough into the forest, you can’t miss it!

Moving Through Grief: A Review of Dorothy Dittrich’s new play, “The Piano Teacher”

The Piano Teacher, a powerful new play by Vancouver’s Dorothy Dittrich, musician, writer, musical director and playwright, explores themes of loss and grief and the slow process of healing.  It is also a story of love and friendship and the healing powers of music.

The story starts with Erin, a woman who has been incapacitated by grief since the tragic death of her husband and son, killed in a car accident by a drunk driver, just before Christmas,  two years earlier.  Although she is a concert pianist, she has receded into herself, and has been unable to touch her piano since the tragedy ripped her life apart.

We meet Erin when she has finally been able to find enough energy and interest to attend a piano recital for the young daughter of a friend.  At that recital, Erin meets the piano teacher, Elaine, and unexpectedly discovers a sanctuary where she feels safe, again, for the first time.

Erin reaches out to Elaine, and the two meet at Elaine’s home.

Actor Megan Leitch, as Erin, does a masterful job of portraying the pain Erin is feeling, and at the beginning of the play, seems fragile and smaller than life.  On the other hand, Caitriona Murphy, as Elaine, portrays a vibrant and strong character who is very much in control of her life, but is also sensitive and empathetic to Erin and her pain.  The actors captured the fragility of Erin and the strength of Elaine in a powerful way that immediately drew me in, and I became an active part of the experience until after the last line was spoken.

As a friendship between Erin and Elaine evolves, we see that Elaine has also experienced her own losses and grief, but is healthy enough to be living a vibrant life.  She initially doesn’t know how to help Erin, but continues to listen and to be available for her.  This is a story of transition, of moving through difficult emotions to a different state of mind and health, with the help of people who offer their love and support.   Playwright, Dittrich, says that “something about flow and moving through a feeling struck me as distinctly musical”, and music is central to this work.  Part of the message I took from this play was that grief and loss can be mitigated, in part, by the act of creation.  In Erin and Elaine’s case, it was creating music, but other forms of creativity could also assist a person suffering from loss to move through the pain, and on to another stage of his or her life.

A turning point for Erin was when she had the courage to follow Elaine’s suggestion that she “make a change” in her life, and Erin made that change by hiring a handyman to install a large window in her home.  This was a renovation she had always wanted to make, but one vetoed by her late husband.  The installation was an obvious metaphor for bringing new light into her world, but it was also a significant step away from her past life, and into her new life.

The handyman, Tom, was played by Kamyar Pazandeh.   Tom added a new dimension to the play with his energy, humour, common sense, and his love of life.  We know that he had his own regrets about his life, but we didn’t learn a lot about these, as the focus of the work was on the relationship between Erin and Elaine.

As an audience member, drawn into Erin’s grief, I found it difficult to be reminded of the painful, visceral grief buried inside myself from the past, and of the knowledge that if I live long enough, more losses are ahead.  The work caused me to reflect upon how I might deal with this pain in the future, and was reminded of the power of friendship, creativity and the importance taking those difficult first steps forward, after a significant loss.

Congratulations to actors, Megan Leitch, Caitriona Murphy, and Kamyar Pazandeh;  creative team, Yvette Nolan, Director, Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg, David Roberts, Set Designer, Jennifer Darbellay, Costume Designer, Kyla Gardiner, Lighting Designer, Patrick Pennefather, Sound Designer, Allison Spearin, Stage Manager, and Sandra Drag, Apprentice Stage Manager, for bringing Dorothy Dittrich’s compelling work to life, and for contributing to the richness of Vancouver theatre and to the cultural and emotional experiences of those who shared this creative, thoughtful and important new work.