The strings that tie mothers to daughters are knotted, twisted and forever looping. Severing those strings is an impossible feat, though many spend their lives trying. Untangling the relationships, on the other hand, is a lifetime endeavor and any daughter willing to make the effort is rewarded with the self-knowledge and agency that allows her to act rather than to react.
Nambi E. Kelley’s “For Her as a Piano” pays tremendous homage to this struggle by portraying the dreamscape of thirty-nine-year-old Sarah (Toya Turner) while she undergoes a surgical removal of uterine fibroids. Like Virgil guided Dante through hell, a charming and empathetic Piano (Camille Robinson) guides Sarah through her dreams, shuffling through Sarah’s memories by plucking on the strings that run from the ceiling to the stage, a stage that rises up from the ground in the shape of a piano lid.
In the dreamy sequence of events, we watch Sarah relive childhood memories with a mentally ill mother who refused to discuss her own past and her own mother’s neglect. Sarah’s recent memories and moments from her grandmother’s life also drift in and out of the dreams, reinforcing for Sarah and the audience that, like the chorus chants in gorgeous harmony, “everything is now.” Meanwhile, the Piano urges Sarah to forgive her foremothers and let go of the belief that her problems are a result of her upbringing rather than believing she has control over the present circumstances of her life.
Given the dynamic negotiation of time, memory and imagination in “For Her as a Piano,” the narrative is incredibly controlled and coherent, due in part to the characters’ depth and continuity. Haunting scenes punctuate the performances and are difficult to forget, especially an abortion scene in which a cigarette-smoking doctor slowly pulls a royal red length of fabric from a supine Sarah with her knees in the air.
Like any good untangling, “For Her as a Piano” is not for the faint of heart, as it traces the traumas of Sarah’s history. Powerfully emotive, it allows the audience to partake in the duet of suffering between mother and daughter. (Joy Miller)
Pegasus Theatre Chicago, Chicago Dramatists, 1105 West Chicago, (866)811-4111, pegasustheatrechicago.org, $18-$30. Through November 1.