Regional Reviews: New Jersey
First Class Revival of August Wilson's Fences
Change is in the air. Four years earlier, the civil rights movement had moved into high gear with the unanimous Supreme Court decision ruling school segregation unconstitutional. A tumultuous era that would culminate in the March on Washington, The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had begun.
The tragic figure at the center of Fences is 53-year-old Troy Maxson. After spending 15 years in the penitentiary, Troy, with the help of his wife Rose, has built a respectable life over the past quarter century. He is employed at a moving company as a truck loader, and is in the midst of successfully challenging his employer's practice of only promoting whites to the relatively cushy position of truck driver. Troy, who is building a fence to protect his home and yard, has a sense of responsibility toward his devoted wife and now 18-year-old son Cory, which has been the fence that he has employed to restrain him from indulging in his destructive appetites.
However, Troy is a larger than life fabulist with quite a gift of gab. He is also bitter and delusional. He blame whites for his failure to reap rewards playing baseball (he learned to play baseball exceedingly well while in prison, but as Rose makes clear thereafter he had not been hired for the Negro Leagues because he was too old). Now Cory is being recruited to go to college on a football scholarship. Troy refuses to sign the necessary permission papers, dooming Cory's chance to go to college. He claims that he "knows" that whites will not allow Cory to succeed, and that his only chance to support himself is by learning a laborer's trade. Troy is also nosing around another woman. That metaphorical fence that has so well served Troy has weakened with time, and as it begins to come down, it is threatening to take Troy down with it.
Troy, one of the most complex characters in American stage literature, is arguably Wilson's quintessential creation. For me, Troy also embodies as strongly as any character Wilson's most arresting and powerful themes. Troy is a victim of the burden of racial discrimination, but he has also been victimized by the behavior of African Americans close to him (specifically, his own father) whose inadequacies stemmed from the same discrimination. Thus, Wilson acknowledges the historic burden of the African American while simultaneously illustrating the importance of assuming individual accountability. Most of Wilson's characters are hard working individuals reflecting the remarkable resiliency of African-Americans throughout our history. Troy illustrates the difficulties that must be overcome to achieve this state of grace as well as the terrible consequences to self, family and community when individuals fail to do so. Your feelings toward Troy Maxson may fall anywhere on a continuum between affection and pity, and disdain and dislike, but you will have a visceral reaction to this unforgettable man.
Under the sure and steady hand of director Phylicia Rashad, this Fences gives us the satisfying feeling that we are being made privy to the reality and rhythm of the everyday life of Troy, his family and friend. Esau Pritchett is able to inject an undercurrent of uneasiness in Troy's grandiosity which makes Troy more human and less mythic than he has appeared in other productions. Although Fences includes a bit of Wilson's hopeful magic spirituality, which appears to varying degrees in other plays in this cycle, the primary mode of Fences is naturalism. Pritchett has the discipline to adroitly deliver a play-enhancing, naturalistic performance in a role which tends to bring out the histrionic in actors.
The entire ensemble is believably naturalistic. Portia is Rose, Troy's devoted wife. Chris Myers is his 18-year-old son Cory. Jared McNeill is Lyons, the adult son whom Troy fathered before his fifteen years in jail. G. Alverez Reid is his brother Gabriel, who is mentally impaired as a result of injuries sustained in World War II which have left him with metal plates in his head. Phil McGlaston is his longtime friend and co-work Bono who has found balance and contentment. Each performance is naturalistic, organically rising in intensity and fervor when appropriate. Taylor Dior (Raynell) is charming in a brief role in the play's final scene.
The evocative and detailed set by John Iacovelli, subtle lighting of Xavier Pierce and the period costumes of ESOSA make solid contributions to the production.
The original Broadway production of Fences opened in the spring of 1987 and sustained a run of 525 performances, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is one of the finest plays in the canon of American stage literature. This excellent McCarter revival can be recommended without reservation.
Fences continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through (note extended date) February 16, 2014, at the at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.
Fences by August Wilson; directed by Phylicia Rashad