Long Wharf's presentation is directed by Phylicia Rashad, whose performance several years ago in Wilson's Gem of the Ocean remains memorable. The evening starts slowly and, after intermission, quickly reaches a fairly consistent crescendo. One does not feel Rashad's presence and this, indeed, might be a good thing. Instead, she has obviously lent guidance to her fine acting group, and allowed Wilson's piercing, knowing dialogue to carry forward. John Iacovelli's evocative set brings us directly to the Hill District: dirt yard, shabby house exterior, and a tree ... it is 1957 in a certain Pittsburgh neighborhood.
August Wilson was an explorer and interpreter of a world he knew and that territory lives in the present; Fences will never grow old. The protagonist, Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett), wants to serve his family well. He was once a star baseball player but went to the penitentiary, even if this might not have been all that deserved. In his mid-fifties now and collecting garbage to make a meager living, he adores yet strays from his wife Rose (Portia). Their teenaged son, Cory (Chris Myers), hoping to become a football player, clashes with his father. Another of Troy's sons, the musical Lyons (Jared McNeill), a young man who was born when Troy was married to someone else, is constantly looking for a few dollars. Lyons will borrow easily but will he return the cash? Gabriel (G. Alverez Reid), younger brother to Troy, injured his head during a war battle and subsequently has cerebral difficulties. Jim Bono (Phil McGlaston) is Troy's best friend and the two men open the play as they sit, joke, philosophize. Bono speaks with and listens to Troy.
Troy argues that Cory should not play football because he, the father, endured destructive racism and he fears that his son, wishing to pursue a scholarship, will face that impossibly difficult obstacle as well. Eventually, an altercation leads to Cory's departure from the household.
Meanwhile, Troy must confess to Rose that he has been with another woman, Alberta, with whom he has been spending time. A baby will soon be born. Rose is shattered and astonished but shows all her human compassion when she elects to care and mother Troy's young daughter Raynell (Taylor Dior). Alberta, we learn, dies in childbirth.
Fences was staged for the first time 28 years ago ago at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Wilson, working with friend and associate, the director Lloyd Richards, premiered a number of works not very far in geographic distance from Long Wharf Theatre. This poignant and potent play, with its heroic yet flawed Troy Maxson, commands attentionstill. After all, the focus is familial and, ultimately, about love.
James Earl Jones performed exceptionally when he carried the role of Troy at Yale Rep decades back. Actor Esau Pritchett's body type is nothing like Jones's. Pritchett (who hasn't any hair on his head but plenty on his face) is tall and athletic lookinglike a baseball outfielder or even a pitcher; or he could be an NBA guard. Pritchett's absorbing performance is fully pervasive as he captures Troy's complexities and multi-faceted personality.
As Rose, actress Portia (going by one name) hasn't all that much to do during the first act. For the final hour, though, Rose is powerful, steadfast, compassionate, and quite willing to go toe-to-toe with her husband. All of the ensemble actors are excellent and that includes precious Taylor Dior, the little girl who so effectively embodies Raynell. She enunciates precisely and is perfectly at home on stage.
August Wilson was a driving life force and a conversationalist who liked nothing more than to share coffee, talk of theater, and all else for hours during a given morning. We've lost him but not his perception, articulation, and stirring talent. After Troy has died, Gabriel closes Fences: "Hey, Rose. It's time. It's time to tell St. Peter to open the gates. Troy, you ready? You ready, Troy? I'm gonna tell St. Peter to open the gates. You get ready, now." Gabriel attempts to make a sound with the trumpet he has carried around his neck. But, nothing happens. Finally, after moving around just a bit, he exclaims, "That's the way that go!" A given performance of Fences concludes while emotions surely linger.
Fences continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, through December 22nd. For ticket information, see www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282.
- Fred Sokol