In her play Cardboard Piano (at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Dec. 2), Hansol Jung sets a cross-cultural love story in the middle of a Ugandan civil war. On New Year’s Eve in 1999, Adiel (Gabriella Momah) waits in a small village church for her girlfriend Chris (Megan Timpane). Chris’s father is a missionary and the pastor who built that church. She and Adiel are meeting at midnight to spend the first moments of the new millennium together. But outside of their candlelit haven, society as they know it is breaking down. Government soldiers and rebel forces have turned the streets into battlefields. When a child soldier named Pika (Howard Johnson) enters the church, he interrupts Chris’s and Adiel’s tryst.
Before his arrival, Adiel had been preparing a marriage ceremony. When Chris does show up, she doesn’t have their rings and appears somewhat reluctant to follow through with their plan. Adiel wants to recite traditional, formal vows but Chris is resistant. Instead of saying her middle and last name, she says, “I, Chris blank, do solemnly swear…” Their vows stop a second time, years before gay marriage was legally recognized and modifiable, when she recoils at the word “husband.” There were several moments like this one in Jung’s script that felt like false starts in character development. The playwright would alert the audience to someone’s psychology and then leave the trait or behavior hanging there unexplored.
It made some sense that Chris would have trouble concentrating on getting married while the world around them is descending into chaos — but those pauses suggest that she might have other, more personal reservations. What also didn’t work was a clumsy, contrived scene in which the couple hears gunshots outside then, inexplicably, delay barring the church doors. Just as Adiel is about to close them, her hand inches away from doing so, Pika barges in pointing a gun at them. It’s like watching any number of horror movies in which no one has an ounce of common sense. Later, after they have secured the doors, Pika’s cruel army commander (Dane Troy) opens them up easily. Why did the director bother with these doors in the first place if barring them was so ineffective? The stage entrances and exits in Cardboard Piano aren’t exactly comical but they detract from unaffected performances like Momah’s and the intentions of this well-meaning drama.
In addition to his aggressive opening stance, Pika’s face is also bleeding. But he quickly passes out before he can do any harm. Johnson is the tallest member of the cast, a full-grown adult who’s meant to be 13 years old. The actor has to convey an adolescent’s volatility vocally, and he does, but it’s an odd bit of casting. Rotimi Agbabiaka pulled off a similar transformation in a Magic Theatre production of Mfoniso Udofia’s runboyrun but his role was more fully imagined than Johnson’s. Adiel has never met Pika before but she takes pity on him. She recognizes the type of boy he is, someone who could be a member of her family, conscripted against his will and much too young to cope with warfare. Chris, an American who looks especially out-of-place in a crisis, is simply afraid of him.
Once they’ve tended to his wound, Adiel decides to return to her home to gather her belongings — while soldiers are shooting at each other outside. At this point, the playwright’s plot points started to get muddy. If the plan all along was to elope, why wouldn’t she have already brought her things to the church? Or did the sudden escalation of violence hurry the escape plan along? Either way, her decision felt like it was divorced from what a real person would do in that situation. She tells Chris that there’s nothing to worry about, because she knows her way around the village.
Chris, who seems less concerned about packing a suitcase, is then left alone with Pika. In order to bond with him or win his trust, she tells him a story about her father. When she was growing up, their family was too poor to afford a piano so he fashioned one out of cardboard for her. Instead of being pleased with the gesture, Chris tore it to bits. But her father painstakingly pieced it back together. Unfortunately, the symbolic import of this metaphor remains vague on stage. It must have meant something personal to Jung but it doesn’t resonate with the love story or the civil unrest taking place in the background. The playwright is so committed to the idea of that piano she brings it back in the second act in order to tie the play together. It’s part of an overdetermined approach that hits the right topical notes without achieving much fluidity or narrative depth.