Dorothy Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: moments of wisdom from an unlikely source.

 

Elaine has long come to terms with the arthritis which sidelined her performing career as a pianist – or so she thinks.

She’s remade herself into the kind of inspired piano teacher who comfortably accepts a student’s desire to not perform on recital day knowing, perhaps, that the music lives already in the child.

When Erin, a celebrated pianist so grief-stricken she can’t even bear to sit on a piano bench, asks Elaine to be her teacher, playwright Dorothy Dittrich uses their relationship to explore grief, loss and the potency latent in music.

“Music is a language. You have to learn to speak it, not just play it,” Elaine (Caitriona Murphy) says in the Arts Club’s production of The Piano Teacher. “Music played from the heart is healing.”

When Erin (Megan Leitch) recounts the recital day incident in an imaginary conversation with her husband, I want to cheer in solidarity for all young music students. “Imagine the freedom, Kevin. Imagine the space not to play,” Erin says.   The child said, “’I learned a bunch of songs,’ and sat down!”

Humour lightens what could be a heavy theme. Erin doesn’t like Beethoven because he was “too big, too loud. Probably a bastard.” Elaine admits Chopin’s music “reminds me of clammy hands.”

But for all the levity, Megan Leitch’s Erin is a painfully accurate depiction of the desperate loneliness and emptiness of depression. Jenifer Darbellay’s costumes are perfect in everyday simplicity. Although we never actually see Erin’s thin, bare, brave shoulder-blades, we feel them.

Patrick Pennefather’s spare sound design skillfully walks the line between appealing to intellect and emotion, and never descends into overblown indulgence.

While Elaine’s love interest, Tom, is a lightly sketched character played with amiable animal warmth by Kamyar Pazandeh, there’s no real need for Tom to be fully-fleshed. Depression flattens perspective and if one is emotionally ready, as Elaine becomes, even the smallest event or interaction can be enough to help spark a return to life.

As a musician, I warmed to Dittrich’s theme. Playing music is indeed “a relationship,” that transforms both player and listener. The chord “unbroken” can  sound “banal”, but broken, can indeed be “sublime.”

“The broken chord acts as a container for the melody,” Elaine says poetically. “It supports without imposing itself.”

In one heart-stopping moment, Elaine asks Erin “What’s (composer Aaron) Copeland to you?”

Erin answers with one word: “Space.”

“This man has found a way to make us hear the landscape and the space around it,” she continues. “He’s given space a voice.”

As Erin regains her ability to play music, Elaine finds the space to explore her own loss. “I wasn’t prepared for Erin,” Elaine says. “How could I be? She was the teacher.”

Yet while Erin and Elaine’s dialogue is clear, spare and delicate in its dance between emotion and rationality, Elaine’s lecture/musings occasionally jarred with painful banality. I felt an almost physical affront from inane lines like “Life changes you,” and “I think you just have to be grateful for what you have and do the things you love.”

Does the blatancy of these lessons, along with the obvious metaphor of Elaine installing a giant new window on her landing at home, originate from the playwright? Dittrich, afterall, also wrote this sensitive, illuminating observation: music is “sounds and silence in motion. It has to have space and time. Sometimes it gets too intense and it has to breathe.”

Or does the responsibility lie with the Arts Club looking to provide its paying audience with simple answers nicely wrapped up in a picture window?

– Jenny Lee

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