Theater & Arts

Donald Munro: Two daring plays open (‘Music Lesson’)

Like most Americans, the playwright Tammy Ryan in the early 1990s knew a little — but not a lot — about the catastrophic war in Bosnia. It was hard to keep up: The television images were jarring. The politics were convoluted. The reports of atrocities and ethnic cleansing were frightening. Without becoming a full-time consumer of news and being willing to dig deeply into claims and counterclaims, it was easy to distance herself from the tragedy, to file away the whole scenario as a murky mess.

But sometimes life has a way of injecting the personal into the abstract.

A couple moved in to the house next door in Ryan’s Pittsburgh neighborhood. They were classical musicians who had moved from Sarajevo.

“They’d only been in the country for about a year,” Ryan says. “They began telling me stories (about) what happened to them.”

And those stories, with the couple’s blessing, came to form the core of “The Music Lesson,” which won the American Alliance of Theater in Education’s 2004 Distinguished Play Award.

She fictionalized the Pittsburgh story of the couple, changing their names and other details in the play, but the events in the play that happen in Sarajevo are based on fact.

Irena (played by Leslie Martin), a pianist, and Ivan (Chris Carsten), a violinist, are making a new life. Irena taught a 12-year-old piano prodigy, Maja (Haley Huntley), in Sarajevo. Now that she’s safely in Pittsburgh, her memories of that time intrude on her reality even as she confronts new challenges with Kat (Chelsea Newton), an American teenager taking lessons.

The music of Bach weaves together the past and present. In this staging of the play, directed by J. Daniel Herring for StageWorks Fresno, two onstage musicians — pianist Gina Fazio and violinist Kim Manning — provide live music.

Herring envisions his staging of the play as a blending of a theater piece and a chamber concert, with actors at times miming the playing of instruments.

“I felt the music was its own character,” he says.

For Ryan, who still lives in Pittsburgh, a lot of this was new at the time she started work on “The Music Lesson,” both the war and idea of writing a play so in tune with music.

She dived into books about the war, relishing the chance to dig deeper. And with no background playing an instrument, she immersed herself in the couple’s world.

“Everything in the play that is about music came from watching them teach, listening to them talk about music — and listening to Bach,” she says.

Because the play was originally written as a commissioned piece geared toward young audiences, there’s a sense of directness and simplicity. But the conclusions that it draws about youth and war don’t just work on a child’s level.

For Herring, the play asks a probing question: “If we are not teaching our children to be human, what are we teaching them?”

This will be his third time directing the play — he also did it for Louisville’s Stage One Family Theatre and the Dallas Children’s Theater — and was involved in the play’s formative process as well, first working with Ryan on a version in 1999.

He teamed up with Ryan at a workshop at the University of Texas at Austin in 2000 to experiment with using live musicians in the play. (It can also be staged with taped music or actors playing their own instruments.)

Ryan likes the live music approach.

“It really works very beautifully, because it becomes part concert, part play,” she says. “The music allows the audience a deeper emotional connection.”

“The Music Lesson” remains the most produced of Ryan’s published works. Compared with its reception 15 years ago, Herring wonders if audiences have become a little “harder” than before, more willing to contemplate a world that inflicts such horrors upon children. The Bosnia War doesn’t feel like ancient history — it seems as if it’s happening in the here and now.

Ryan has noticed an uptick in the number of productions in the past year, and she has a theory why. “I think it’s directly related to when people are bombing children. Beginning when Israel was bombing Palestine, we were hearing about the school children in the line of fire. And then events in Syria.”

In a sense, the world is a little smaller than in those days when a playwright who felt so removed from atrocities overseas befriended new neighbors.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s happening far away,” she says of the play’s wartime setting. “And that’s a little sad.”