Damn Near Perfect: ‘Lessons in Temperament’

A man sits on a wooden floor with a piano to his right and pieces of the piano surrounding him.
Photo sourced from Outside the March.

When you’re kind of a haunted person, it can be hard to talk about your life. Overshoot on the levity, and you’re too glib. Undershoot, and you’re morose. Most of us don’t have the skill to fine-tune our honesty into storytelling that is both playful and heartrending. 

Luckily for his audience, James Smith does a damn near perfect job. 

Lessons in Temperament is a one-man show written and performed by Smith and directed and developed by Mitchell Cushman. An Outside The March production presented by Ontario Presents, the play follows four neurodiverse brothers in Trenton, Ontario. Smith plays himself, James, the baby of the family. For an hour and 45 minutes, he talks about growing up in a household where nobody talks about mental illness. All the while, he tunes a piano, slowly working his way from his tuning fork’s A440 to the lowest and highest reaches of the instrument. 

As an algorithmically ordained watcher of music theory YouTube, James’ preamble is familiar to me—a charismatic guy explaining interesting musical concepts in a somewhat off-the-cuff manner. I’m invested. Although the word “lessons” is in the title, the show feels neither teachy nor preachy. I was surprised when the opening felt like standup, and impressed with the tenderness of Smith’s tone throughout. 

When you’re the youngest child in a household full of conflict, it’s easy to get mean-spirited, but James never does things the easy way. Coping with his own compulsions and walking the tightrope between meticulousness and hyperfixation, he maps out each brother’s habits, desires, and formative moments vividly. I was ready for Lessons in Temperament to be heavier, clunkier. More serious. The play is serious in a good way—taking seriously its commitment to James’ family, to his love for his brothers. But it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In his unrelentingly affectionate manner, Smith delivers the funny, disturbing, and often bizarre family stories with candour. 

Working with a central metaphor can be challenging. How do you sustain the analogy between a piano and a family, tuning and mental health, without hammering it in too hard? Though the physical act of tuning the piano is always present as a framing device, and he does talk about what he’s doing, Smith handles this balance with admirable restraint. Music theory inside jokes—James talks about his childhood compulsion of repeating actions four times as he sits and tunes a perfect fourth interval—are there, but he doesn’t draw too much attention to them. 

Even though Smith performs the entire show while tuning a piano, there were moments last night when I was so engrossed in his monologue that I forgot what he was doing until a new note startled me out of my reverie. The slow, methodical process of tuning the piano also serves as a shared time index. The audience knows roughly where we are in the show based on which part of the piano Smith is tuning. In a solo show with so many characters and stories, this is a helpful grounding technique. 

Lessons in Temperament is visually interesting, too, thanks to production designer Nick Blais. Throughout the performance, Smith sits with his back to the audience so we can see him work on the piano, with three mirrors angled above him so that his face is always visible (which means, I realised partway through, that there are four of James—perfect). Sitting in the Baby Grand, I found that the lighting design flowed smoothly, dimming at the more intense moments and offering a gorgeous view of the warm, brown wooden exterior of the piano Smith was tuning. Later, I learned that the people a few seats over weren’t so enchanted—depending on your spot in the audience, you may get a direct eyeful of light from one of the lamps onstage. 

The play is presented as Smith’s autobiography, and there’s always some tension when it comes to creative nonfiction. When James describes his brothers’ most vulnerable moments, I wonder if Smith is doing right by his real-life brothers. If, indeed, it’s possible to do right by four people’s experiences in a one-person show. There are moments in the show when I wonder whether we’re dancing with problematic tropes about autism, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. However, if Lessons in Temperament is taken as a particular story—not the be-all representation of these complex categories of experiences—I think it holds up. And with Smith’s insightful, specific, and very human representation of his brothers, it rings true as a thoughtful exploration of four lives from one family member’s perspective. 

What does it mean to strive for that click of perfection when, by nature, everything is always going out of tune? Lessons in Temperament takes a complex emotional toolkit to frustrating, often thankless, always important themes. With post-show artist talkbacks led by Dr. Colleen Renihan, Rachel Marks, and Kemi King later this week, I hope to return to the Baby Grand to listen again before the show continues on its Ontario tour. 

Lessons in Temperament’ plays in Kingston at the Baby Grand through Sunday, January 28th. Tickets and more information can be found here.