In Laura Schellhardt’s UPRIGHT GRAND, the history of two pianos – one upright, one grand – becomes the history of a family. According to Pops, the humble musician dad, it’s “storytelling with piano accents.”
Indeed. The three-character play now onstage at Citadel Theatre has plenty of accents as it tracks Pops, Kiddo and the Accompanist through their decades at the keyboard. Only the Accompanist literally plays the piano while the other two simulate. The technique – father and daughter’s hands moving slightly above the keys in sync with the music – is graceful and consistent. With such simplicity, director Scott Weinstein’s production builds a tiny universe that is fused with emotion.
Citadel Theatre offers a trio of talent
UPRIGHT GRAND’s plot doesn’t go anywhere unexpected. The frustrated dad, the gifted child, the tug between family and fame. But the show holds many delights, especially its talented trio of actors – Chicago veteran Mark Ulrich as Pops, buoyantly youthful Charlotte Mae Ellison as Kiddo and the agile Matt Edmonds who handles multiple roles as pliantly as he does the musical accompaniment.
Ulrich, a versatile and innate actor, takes on Pops with ease. In clothes that hang from his lanky frame with weary bagginess, Ulrich’s Pops loves his music even if it hasn’t loved him back enough. The same could be said of the people his life, including his unseen wife and her disdainful, well-to-do parents. “We’re more upright than we’ll ever be grand,” he tells Kiddo.
As Kiddo, Ellison moves seamlessly from hugging the leg of her father’s modest piano to commanding a concert hall. We don’t see the transitions, we feel them. Kiddo continually revises her relationship with her father, a frustrated songwriter who plays in a bar to support the family. From a 12-year-old who gets suspended for writing “life is crap” in ketchup on a school sign to a young woman of the world, Ellison makes us believe her evolution.
UPRIGHT GRAND’s offstage characters
To focus entirely on a father-daughter bond is a valid choice. But UPRIGHT GRAND makes the offstage mother a significant factor in her husband and daughter’s life – and that omission becomes increasingly unsatisfying. Also not present but decisive are Kiddo’s maternal grandparents who buy her a grand piano and attend her first significant public recital in New York.
UPRIGHT GRAND poses fascinating and fundamental questions, sometimes so directly that they come off more as an agenda than drama. Pops speaks of “a grand capacity for joy” several times. Like the much-discussed offstage characters, tangible evidence of Pops and Kiddo experiencing joy together – not just talking about it – would enrich the story.
Grand hands at Citadel
When there is direct interaction, UPRIGHT GRAND makes its point effectively. Refusing to let Pops see Kiddo before a concert, a Russian teacher calls parental attachment “a noose” and assesses Pop’s life as “small – in scale, not importance.” Blunt and unsparing, the teacher asks, “Why have children if not to surpass you?”
The child surpassing the parent is a foregone conclusion in UPRIGHT PIANO. What hangs in the balance is Kiddo’s recognition of Pops as the progenitor of her own musical gifts. Of course she owns her talent and how she makes use of it. But sacrificing much to put her hands to the keys of a battered upright, Pops proves his own hands are grand enough for any piano.
Color photos: Kyle Techentin. Black and white photos: North Shore Camera.
300 S. Waukegan Road
Lake Forest, Illinois
Now through March 26
Thursday at 7:30 PM
Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM
Sundays at 3:00 PM
Senior & student discounts
Note: This play has been added to the Picture this Post roundup of BEST PLAYS. Click here to find this and more at "Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves".
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in summer 2017.