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Theater Review: “Cardboard Piano”

“The Cardboard Piano” plays through February 25, 2018 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights.
Photo credit:
Diversionary Theatre

Gay rights. The aftermath of hate-inspired violence. Reconciliation and forgiveness. That’s quite a dramatic load for one play to consider.

Playwright Hansol Jung sets “Cardboard Piano” in Uganda in 1999, where Chris (Kate Rose Reynolds), the 16-year-old daughter of Christian missionaries, has fallen in love with local girl Adiel (Andréa Agosto). “Cardboard Piano,” in its West Coast premiere, plays through Feb. 25 at Diversionary Theatre.

It’s New Year’s Eve and the irrepressible teenagers recite their wedding vows on tape, but in secret: homosexuality is illegal and punishable by life in prison in Uganda. It’s also a sin, according to Chris’ parents.

Chris’ idea is for them to run away to Tunisia, and she’s packed a suitcase for the occasion. But Adiel wasn’t planning to leave her family and country.

While they’re fantasizing about their future together, reality enters in the person of wounded child soldier Pika (John Wells III), who comes to the church seeking escape and solace. After they minister to him, another, older soldier (Wrekless Watson) comes in search of the boy. Violence ensues.

Fourteen years later, Chris returns to the church with her father’s ashes. He had asked that they be buried at the Uganda church. But it’s a new regime, with new people but old ways, old lies, and still regressive views about who does and does not deserve God’s attention.

Paul, the new pastor, is practicing his sermon about the Good Samaritan, an outcast who stops to help a bleeding stranger when the “upstanding” members of the community pass him by.

The pastor has his own transgressions (which he’s not willing to discuss), but he and Chris recognize each other and accusations fly.

The title refers to Chris’ story about asking her father for a piano when she was a little girl. The family could not afford it, so the father made her a piano out of cardboard. The disappointed child tore it apart, but regretted it when her father carefully picked up the pieces, went into his office and closed the door. When he returned, he gave her the piano and said, “This is all we have for now. It’s small and fragile, but look, I fixed it. Every time we break something, it’s okay, long as we fix it.”

Jung (whose “Wild Goose Dreams” was seen at La Jolla Playhouse last season) subverts expectations at almost every turn, which is why this play is fascinating. Director Jacole Kitchen keeps the tension high, and the committed cast does the rest.

Reynolds is perfect as Chris: bright, confident, even willing to go up against her family for Adiel.

Agosto’s Adiel is just as giddy as Chris about their relationship but much more hesitant to abandon tradition and family. In the second act, she effectively shifts gears to play the more diffident pastor’s wife Ruth.

Wrekless Watson is convincing (not to mention easy to dislike) as two less than sterling characters: the Soldier in the first act and the pastor Paul in the second.

John Wells III is affecting as both the child soldier and (in the second act) a visitor to the pastor.

Playgoers will likely leave this play pondering the major theme: what can (and cannot) be fixed?

The details

“The Cardboard Piano” plays through February 25, 2018 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights.

Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 220-0097 or www.diversionary.org