Pianos and politics may seem like a strange mix but, for the three-member cast of a new stage production opening this weekend, they lie at the core of the relationship that exists between them.
As the third in a series of three original plays by members of the Generate INK playwriting group, Bridget Erin’s “Sonata for Four Hands” explores the complex nuances of the personalities of two piano students and the mother of one of them who is also the piano teacher. Taking its name from the piano composition by 19th-century Russian composer Anton Rubenstein, Erin’s two-act play opens on Wednesday, Oct. 21, at the Marsalis Jazz Studio on the NOCCA campus in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood.
The show will run on successive weekends through Nov. 7. Mike Spara, Kaitlyn McQuin and Rebecca Meyers comprise the cast, and N. Harold Gervais, of the Second Star Performance Collective, directs. Set design is by Dan Zimmer and Mike Harkins.
Over the course of the play, during which all three actors are on stage at all times, Jonah (Spara) and Eliza (McQuin) are students of Jonah’s mother, Ruth (played by Meyers). Despite the friendship between Jonah and Eliza and the commonality of their musical interests, a vast gulf exists over their political leanings, especially as they relate to the Israel-Palestinian conflicts in the Middle East.
The two young people, who are followed over a period of 10 years, must find common ground on their political differences if they are to focus on learning and playing together on the musically challenging Rubenstein sonata.
A Massachusetts native who has lived in New Orleans since 2003, Erin has written several short plays for Southern Rep’s 3x3 and 6x6 series, one of which was directed by Gervais. She explained how the concept of conflict and compromise evolved into what became her first full-length stage play.
“Usually when I write a play, it’ll come from having a couple of different ideas and then at some point I decide to combine them and the play comes from there,” Erin said. “I love classical music and I was fascinated by the concept of four-hand sonatas and how both of the pianists sharing the piano have to work together.
“And then I was thinking about how polarizing political issues seem to be these days,” Erin continued. “I’ve seen people lose friendships over political disagreements, and so I thought about trying to combine those two elements — classical music and politics — in a play.”
While there is no actual piano in the production, music from the Rubenstein piece is featured throughout. The audience is asked to visualize the pair playing it. It’s “theater of the mind,” as Spara described it.
McQuin, who grew up in Harahan and Ponchatoula and earned a film/theater degree from UNO, said: “Eliza is an interesting character in that she sees things in the same colors as the piano keys: black and white. She isn’t very loving and a lot of that has to do with her upbringing. She wasn’t really praised for her talents on piano and she didn’t get a lot of the attention she deserved growing up
“She’s tough to crack. When I approach her role, I have to kind of knock down my own walls in order for me to emotionally connect with the character because there are so many walls around her.”