Rarely does a community theater burst upon the scene with such an auspicious inaugural-season opener as Terra Nova Theatre Group's production of The Music Lesson. Tammy Ryan's 1999 drama, inspired by two teachers who fled the siege of Sarajevo, is well chosen, ably cast and sympathetically directed. OK, maybe the ending is a little pat; but it's a gut-wrenching ride to get there, and we can certainly use the relief of a good catharsis.
The slightly too-neat resolution is the only clue that Lesson was originally commissioned (and subsequently honored) as a "young persons' play," since there's not a whiff of the patronization that label usually portends. Instead, what we get from Pittsburgh-based Ryan is a solid story about teachers and their students, about war, about rebuilding shattered lives and about personal pain. Moreover, it's -- gulp -- suitable for the whole family.
The success of this play hinges on the skills and relationships of its three leading actresses: Allison Cahill as the teacher, and real-life sisters Gina C. Wagner and Cecile Waltz as her students in Sarajevo and Pittsburgh, respectively. This is not to denigrate the contributions of Mark Stevenson as the husband/teacher, who ably provides comic relief along with a subtle strength. (He also directed.)
The sibling resemblance and rivalry are not incidental to the plot. Wagner's Maja, a gifted piano student growing into womanhood during the siege, rarely leaves the stage, just as she rarely leaves the mind of the teacher Irena. Waltz's Kat flits in and out, seeking validation as the initially unsympathetic character of a stereotypical whiny American teen, blinded by self-pity after her parents' divorce. Unwittingly, the students compete in Irina's war-wracked mind, as we learn what happened during the daily struggle in a war zone. After the expected climax and a surprising plot twist, the characters work out their relationships with life and with music, if not entirely with each other.
The portrayal of memories from the mid-'90s break-up of Yugoslavia, and of the difficult explanations of its sectarian hatred, neighbor-against-neighbor killing, ethnic cleansing and wanton destruction of a culturally ancient city, presents a prescient analogy to the current war in Iraq. This is not to call The Music Lesson an anti-war polemic. Rather, it's a play about surviving, and about life beyond pain.
The Music Lesson continues through Sept. 29. Terra Nova Theatre Group in the Olin Fine Arts Center, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pa. 724-942-4270 or www.terranovatheatregroup.org