The siege of Sarajevo rarely comes up in conversation these days. In The Music Lesson, playwright Tammy Ryan makes this plain: When Americans discuss the Balkan conflict, they can't tell which countries were involved, why they were fighting, or even what they were fighting about. Using dramatic flashbacks and the haunting ghost of a young girl, The Music Lesson is a passionate discussion of bombing and its psychological aftermath. With the world's eyes now upon the Middle East, this Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater production of Ryan's drama (first produced in 1998) takes the time to glance back.
Ivan is an elder violinist, Irena is a pianist. Happily married, in Sarajevo they taught music to prodigies -- until the Serbs started blowing their neighborhood to smithereens. They moved to the U.S. as refugees, but as the play opens, they must learn English and make money -- tasks only Ivan embraces. For Irena, the new apartment still echoes with spectral voices and gunfire.
They enroll two students: Eddie, a nice little boy with a talent for the violin, and Kat, a miserable teen-ager and reluctant pianist. Irena is stuck instructing Kat, an impossible task. Predictably, Irena has a meltdown, Kat starts to overcome her funk, and everybody bonds over Bach.
Music Lesson suffers from one big imbalance: It's clearly most interested in the Bosnian conflict and the refugee experience. When it comes to the students, both of whom are African American, Ryan seems skittish: Kat and Eddie live in a broken home, and Kat's high school sounds off-putting, but compared to sniper-fire their problems appear petty and ridiculous. Had Ryan truly scarred her children, she might have drawn a profound line between inner-city life (with its firearms and ethnic tensions) and actual, militarized war (also firearms and ethnic tensions). Instead, the kids are just bratty and despondent, and their mother is totally clueless.
Nonetheless, as staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights, The Music Lesson is an agreeable lesson in good intentions. The show is serious but not intense, didactic but good-humored. John Gresh directs his cast through many scenes and light dream sequences, and the product is simple and coherent. And while the acting is uneven, the kids are genuine high points: Imani Milliones-Roman, Nadia Cook-Loshilov and Aman Milliones-Roman are all 13, but their talents are ageless. Judging by intermission talk last weekend, The Music Lesson moved its audience, young and old.
The Music Lesson continues through May 26. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-288-0358