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THEATER REVIEW Cardboard Piano
by Lauren Emily Whalen

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Playwright: Hansol Jung

At: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets: $40-54; . Runs through: March 17

A childhood parable inspires the title of Hansol Jung's Cardboard Piano.

What's broken can be fixed, the tale dictates, and what's done can be forgiven. Of course, life is never that simple. Using Uganda as a backdrop, the acclaimed playwright tries to weave a complex tale of the past and present, and the positive and negative ramifications of faith. She almost but doesn't quite succeed. Cardboard Piano's strong first act is followed by an underwhelming second act with no real climactic moment and a resolution that feels rushed.

On the eve of the new millennium, two girls meet in a church. Chris ( Kearstyn Keller ) is white and Adiel ( Adia Alli ) is Black, but that's only the beginning of this forbidden relationship. At 16 years old, they're in love and want to commit to one another, but they're queer in notoriously homophobic Uganda and, to add to it, Chris's father is an evangelical Christian missionary who built this very church. Fourteen years later, Chris returns to the same church on a different mission, and when she encounters the new pastor ( Kai A. Ealy ) and his gregarious wife ( Alli ), a reckoning takes place.

Cardboard Piano starts strong, with a solemn hymn offset by young Adiel joyfully throwing confetti and setting the stage for her clandestine wedding. After Chris joins her, the girls squabble and kiss, recording their vows for posterity—and then things take an even darker turn. How far will they go to preserve their relationship, especially after a malicious outside force comes into play? Jung captures the essence of teenage love and girldom perfectly, from rash declarations to mistaken maturity to the giggly rush that only comes with first love. Chris and Adiel are respectfully and fully drawn, a rarity for teenage female characters, and the stakes are alarmingly high, with a fast, furious pace that director Mechelle Moe is adept at maintaining.

Unfortunately, the second act doesn't have the same momentum. A key reveal is brushed past and Moe can't seem to decide where exactly the climax should go. Pastor Paul's relentless quest to right past wrongs comes to a head in a breakdown that feels forced and goes on too long. Moe also should have spent more time with Keller, who's not as believable as a 30-year-old woman as she is playing 16. ( Although Alli portrays a different character in the second half, her transition from teen to adult is much more credible. )

Cardboard Piano's scenic and lighting designs set the tone for the play. Jeffrey D. Kmiec devises a church with simple wooden benches and majestic rafters, and Brandon Wardell has fun with blacklights and exquisite lanterns. The cast is charismatic and polished, telling a story with big twists and bigger themes. With such a strong premise and a company that prides itself on research and social awareness, Cardboard Piano should have been quietly devastating. Instead, it's more of a blip.

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