Bring extra hankies for South Park Theatre's production of The Music Lesson. It's a testament to local playwright Tammy Ryan that her 1999 drama still packs a wallop even with the occasional rough patches to be expected in community theater. And I'll tip my omnipresent hat to director Liam Macik for tackling the challenge of an intimate drama that demands so much from its players, especially the youngest ones.
The Music Lesson takes place in the apartment and the mind of a refugee from the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo. Irena (strongly played by Charlotte Sonne) comes from a long line of music teachers, and she has an especial affinity for her young students. Dominating her memories and overshadowing her new life in Pittsburgh is one particularly gifted student, Maja.
Meanwhile, Irena has a new and very different young student, Kat. And while the teacher wrestles with the horrors of real war, the student suffers through an inner war of adolescence and family instability.
It's tricky to have so much of a drama in the hands of children -- think of The Diary of Anne Frank or Arcadia -- and it seems positively churlish to criticize a budding young artist for not effortlessly handling a tremendous burden. In Lesson, the two young actresses have to portray very different people, while suggesting their similarities and building up to a climactic counterpoint. Shannon Dailey starts strong in the very demanding role of Maja, but on opening weekend it was still a struggle for her to sustain the character. Lauren Spinabelli credibly portrays the growth of the American teen.
The youngest member of the cast, Ben Nadler, handles the kid-brother part with unaffected charm and successfully avoids "cute." Ed Gergerich, as Irena's husband, manages to avoid the cliched buffoonery of the immigrant's unfamiliarity with English, while bringing a sense of strength, and the occasional sense of humor, to his traumatized household. Also notable in a small role is Lesa Donati, as the overextended mother.
The break-up of the former Yugoslavia seems so long ago. The portrayal of the European Muslim as sophisticated and sympathetic is even further from today's American mindset. Remember the "ethnic cleansing" and destruction of one of the world's cultural gems? South Park's Lesson brings it all back.
The Music Lesson continues through Oct. 10. South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive and Brownsville Road, South Park. 412- 831-8552 or www.southparktheatre.com