Critipeg: The Piano Teacher

★★★★ out of five

Dylan Hewlett (Supplied)

Is grief just love with nowhere to go?

The Piano Teacher presents a slightly different take. In the absence of their beloved, grief, a paralyzing force, can rob one of the ability to do what they love.

The tale of loss, friendship and music is the latest production to take centre stage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (Royal MTC)’s Tom Hendry Warehouse. Conceived by playwright Dorothy Dittrich, The Piano Teacher is a humanizing portrait of grief that rightfully deserves the 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama.

Two years after tragically losing her husband, Kevin, and son, Terrence, Erin (Gwendolyn Collins), a decorated concert pianist, loses her ability to play the keys. Following unsuccessful trials with psychiatrists and grief counselors, Erin turns to Elaine (Jane Testar), a piano teacher known for her unconventional pedagogy.

During each lesson, Erin opens up about her past in an attempt to understand her aversion to the piano. Though, like grief, her return to the keys is no linear journey. The two-hour production requests patience, yet never bores.

Throughout the play, the characters think out loud, unfolding the narratives of their respective paths. We eventually learn that Elaine carries a grief of her own. After developing arthritis in her hands, she dropped her ambitions of making it as a performing pianist and settled into a teaching role.

Here, viewers begin to come to terms with the ways in which grief is all around us. To the grieving, its weight is a constant tune, yet to the outside world, it is but a pianississimo verse, heard only by the trained ear.

Marking a transitory period, Tom, the carpenter-turned-love-interest, saunters into Erin’s life as she renovates her home along with her mind. Following the intermission, a scene between Erin and Tom forces Erin to reckon with her past, inciting what the late Joan Didion coined as the “vortex effect.”

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion – who, like Erin, lost both her husband and child – describes a grief-related phenomenon where the triggering of memory by familiar material sparks a paralyzing rush of emotions.

For much of the play, the piano, for Erin, is synonymous with the vortex. She cannot play it. She cannot touch it. Yet, it is only after her fingers grace the keys that she truly begins to make peace with the past and seize the present.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Didion writes.

The Piano Teacher combines the frisson of classical piano with universal truths about love, loss and friendship. It is simple in its concept but rich in its narrative.

Dittrich is a maestro in the art of capturing loss, composing a theatrical sonata stringing together the acts of grief. For the audience, it is a rich portrait of the realities of grief – doubling as a self-reflective therapy session – that is sure to pull enough heartstrings to compose a song.

Published in Volume 78, Number 20 of The Uniter (March 7, 2024)

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