THEATRE / Family plot: Paul Taylor on The Piano Lesson and Famine

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IT'S A feat we associate more with novelists than with playwrights. The former are quite content to see forests felled for their multi-volume sequences (Dance To the Music of Time; Alms to Oblivion, etc) whereas if the latter ever presume to write a trilogy, as David Hare has just done, it tends to be regarded as a touch grandiose.

All the more impressive, then, is the achievment of August Wilson, a dramatist who's in the process of giving us a nine-play epic account (one play for each decade) of black experience in 20th-century America, with the focus on those descendants of slaves who fled the south, looking for jobs in the northern cities. Thanks to this long and rich work-in-progress, Wilson has turned himself into one of the two playwrights whose works are now assured a Broadway production - an accomplishment which, as people who have seen Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone will be quick to agree, is only slightly tarnished by the fact that the other one is Neil Simon.

The Piano Lesson, premiered over here in Paulette Randall's beautifully acted production at the Tricycle, is set in Pittsburgh 1936 where Berniece (Cecilia Noble), a severe, resolutely respectable young widow is living with her uncle and daughter. The eponymous instrument is an heirloom ornately carved by her grandfather with the family's sad history. Because white slave owners laid claim to everything produced by their slaves, Berniece's father had to steal the piano back and was burned to death in retaliation. In the years since, whether by supernatural means or human skulduggery, all the white men who could have been involved in his killing have come to sticky ends.

The piano is thus invested with a contradictory symbolism. Berniece respects its history ('Money can't buy what that piano costs'), while resenting the way her father's sacrifice burdened his widow and left a trail of blood in its wake. Her brother, Boy Willie, a cocky, big-talking charmer, splendidly played by Lennie James, has different ideas about the instrument's significance. Convinced they were intended to 'build on it' rather than be its curators, he is determined to sell the piano and buy a piece of land from the old slave-owning family. In the bitter, unresolvable wrangles that ensue, Wilson demonstrates how intractably difficult it is to at once pay due reverence to the sufferings of the past and move on.

Laying the ghost of the past becomes rather too literal an activity for my taste in the second half with insistent spooky visitations from a spirit who may be the deceased's white landowner. What remains attractive about the play, though, is its unhurried capaciousness. Large-minded and warm-spirited, it weaves in its social history through wonderful anecdotes, quirky tributaries of plots and a textured exposition that makes no concessions to immediate intelligibility but has to be figured out as you go along. By the end, you feel you know this family intimately.

Set in 1846-7 in rural Ireland at the time of the Great Hunger, Tom Murphy's Famine (1968), also deals with grim racial memories. But compared to the roundedness of the people in Wilson's play, most of its starving peasants and hard-hearted gentry have the abrupt two-dimensionality of figures in a stark frieze. In Garry Hynes's intense, elemental staging of the piece at the Abbey, Dublin (her farewell production there as artistic director), this impression is reinforced by Frank Conway's design which deposits the whole proceedings in a shambolic ancient circle of stones. A fine setting for suffering and death, but the local famine relief committee, convened to discuss its inhuman schemes for dealing with the starving, looks a trifle cranky standing around in hats and coats there.

The play is studiedly uncathartic. Given a raw, disturbing performance from Sean McGimley, its chief character is John Connor, who simply declines to acknowledge the horror and ruin around him, taking antic refuge in drunken delusions of kingship. The terrible price his family pays for this stubborness makes you think twice, though, about accepting him as any kind of existential hero. It amounts to an impressive, comfortless experience, but one which I found oddly unmoving, perhaps because all the people who die have never (in dramatic terms) been sufficiently alive first.

Tricycle - 071 372 6111, Abbey Theatre 010 353 878 7222