Sunday, November 4, 2018

"Cardboard Piano"

Cardboard Piano
Hansol Jung

Gabriella Momah, Howard Johnson, Megan Timpane & Dane Troy
For anyone who grew up in a Southern Baptist church (and then left forever), the hymn “Just As I Am” will strike a deep and perhaps uneasy chord.  The slow, soulful tune will surely bring back memories of the congregation singing the “invitational hymn” that ended every Sunday morning service after a fiery sermon about the hell and damnation that awaited all who did not now walk the aisles and ask to be “saved.”  The premise of the song and the invitation is that no matter what a person has done in the past, even the worst deeds can be forgiven and wiped away.

In the current New Conservatory Theatre Center production of Hansol Jung’s 2016 Humana Festival premiering play, Cardboard Piano, the four-person cast opens and closes the play singing solemnly the verses of “Just As I Am.”  Their implied invitation to us as an audience is to contemplate what, when, how, and if evil deeds can be forever forgiven.  Can reconciliation between perpetrator and victim actually occur, or even should occur? 

The tense, disturbing, haunting play does not present a clear answer -- even leaving its concluding scene with an open-ended question of what really happens next – but the moving play does leave an audience who will be likely compelled to discuss questions posed by the issues raised.  When those issues include boy soldiers forced to kill unmercifully, anti-gay pastors, and a society seemingly condoning hate-induced violence, questions of reconciliation and forgiveness are especially difficult to face and resolve.

Gabriella Momah & Megan Timpane
The play opens just as the strike of midnight ushers in a new millennium.  In her father’s small, missionary church in a township in northern Uganda, a white teenage girl, Chris (Megan Timpane), is about to enact a wedding ceremony with Adiel (Gabriella Momah), a Ugandan girl who has carefully written a script and assembled some roses, a candle, a Bible, and a twist-off bottle of sparkling lemonade for the service -- the ring of which will be used as the ring for their marriage.  Amidst some protests by Chris that this forbidden ceremony uses too much reference to “the father, the son, and the holy ghost”  -- she being especially concerned after a wall-trembling crash of thunder, “Is He mad at us?” – the two are married, recording the proceedings on a tape recorder since no witnesses are there to prove later the marriage occurred.  

With Chris’ American parents about to leave Uganda given the horrible killings and kidnappings by a warlord’s resistance army, the two girls debate whether secretly to leave for Tunisia or to a safer part of the native country that Adiel still loves.  As they dance their wedding dance singing the Righteous Brothers’ “Oh My Love, My Darling,” the countryside war interrupts their gaiety as a thirteen-year-old boy stumbles into the church, bearing a large gun and bleeding from a wound to his right ear. 

Megan Timpane & Howard Johnson
After a few tense moments, the girls – especially the calmer Adiel – convince Pika (Howard Johnson) that they will help him.  As they try to halt the bleeding, Pika begins to share the atrocities he -- since the age of ten -- has enacted on innocent others, all the time with a face writhed in anguish and eyes still seeing the horror he has witnessed and caused.  Pika’s inner terror and despair grows as he sobs, “I am a very bad soul.”

Young Chris quickly becomes pastoral and tries to soothe Pika with a story about a piano her father once made for her out of cardboard and that she tore up because she only wanted a real one.  The story becomes a teaching metaphor about “how to fix your soul” with the core lesson being, “Every time you break something, it’s OK if you fix it.”

Her parable is immediately put to the severest of tests as another boy soldier (Dane Troy) on the hunt for Pika (and his life) breaks into the church.  The violence of the outside streets suddenly invades the sanctity of the church, with a spousal kiss being the final spark to ignite an explosion of hate-filled violence.

Fourteen years later, Chris comes back to this same church, now to plant a chestnut tree with her father’s ashes as the sod.  She finds a pastor, Paul (Dane Troy), who has been practicing a sermon about the Good Samaritan and asking himself if the act of a stranger helping a robbed victim is an act of just being kind or one of following Jesus’s command to love your neighbor.  While Paul is clearly nervous about this white woman suddenly showing up, his wife, Ruth (Gabriella Momah), is excited to welcome her.  But there is something eerily familiar as Chris and Paul both contemplate each other that comes to a anger/hate head when Paul’s gay cousin, Francis (Howard Johnson), also suddenly appears. 

Is it OK when a cardboard piano that was purposively torn to pieces is taped back together?  Can all be forgiven?  What acts are forgivable and what ones so abhorrent, no one – even God – can overlook them?  And finally, who gets to define ‘abhorrent’? 

With performances that to a person are riveting, this cast does not hesitate to lay bare the sweet love and the engrained hate, the absolute surety and the scary uncertainty as well as the holy righteousness and the paralyzing guilt that exist among one, some, and all of them.  Tom Bruett directs with no hesitation to lure us into laughing gently and feeling total at ease only suddenly to jolt us with demons and devils -- leaving us with unanswered, ethical questions that we would prefer have clearer answers. 

The combined, creative, design talents and insights of Devin Kasper (set), Sophia Craven (lighting), and Mike Post (sound) leave lasting impressions that both enlighten and enrich follow-up contemplation of the play’s lingering questions.  The small church setting is dominated overhead by a hole-riddled cross that reaches into the audience, one where blood-red light occasionally seeps through the riddled wood.  On the other side of net-covered walls, tiny lights periodically appear like prying, spying, threatening eyes.  Soothing sounds of jungle birds, frogs, and insects are interrupted by crashes of startling thunder that shakes the very foundation where we sit.  To their efforts is added the costumes designed by Corrida Carr that mirror the varied personalities we meet and their present stations in life – be it teenage rebel (Chris), religiously devout teenager (Adiel), ravaged boy soldier (Pika), or small village preacher (Paul), among others.

While being left with troubling questions can be instructive after seeing a play, the ending of this particular play seems a bit too unresolved.  Some pieces come together, but an important one is missing – both in plot resolution and in understanding the impact an act of forgiveness is to have the one being forgiven.  Every ‘t’ being crossed and every ‘i’ dotted is certainly not necessary; but after the emotional walloping that Hansol Jung’s script gives us, I for one would have appreciated just a bit more clarity of the outcome of one particular character.

That said, the cast and creative team of New Conservatory Theatre have tackled a difficult set of subjects and characters with profound skill that is particularly stunning in the way each principal is emotionally affected as each role is portrayed.  Cardboard Piano leaves open the question of what can and cannot be fixed, but Hansol Jung’s play clearly seems to say that putting back the pieces in the presence of the offender is at least the first important step.

Rating: 4 E

Cardboard Piano continues through December 2, 2018 in the Walker Theatre of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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