Troy Maxson calls his teenage son outside for a talk. He commands his son to come outside, in a voice that will brook no disagreement. It is the first time Laurence Fishburne has let us see this side of Maxson - gone is the affable garbage man shooting the breeze with his friend after work; gone is the husband who can't keep his hands off his wife as he lovingly jokes with her. Instead, Fishburne gives us a brief peek at the anger that is boiling inside the man. Maxson's son, Cory, is a high school football player who is being recruited by a college, and Maxson would rather Cory learn a trade. After all, Maxson himself was a Negro League baseball player who was not permitted to play Major League ball. Even though Baseball had since become integrated, Maxson's outrage at his own treatment makes him distrust sports as an opportunity for his son. And so, he calls Cory outside for a talk.
In the scene that follows - a scene burnt into the memory of anyone who saw James Earl Jones perform it on the 1987 Tony telecast - Cory, disappointed by his father's rejection of his football dream, asks his father why he doesn't like him. And Maxson, choosing to use this moment as an opportunity to impart some wisdom to his son, tells Cory that he doesn't have to like him.
And then, in the production of Fences at the Pasadena Playhouse, the audience laughs. There is something fundamentally wrong with this. Sure, there are light, laugh-inducing moments in August Wilson's now-classic play - but this is not one of them. This is a son desperate for his father's approval - a young man who wants more than anything for his father to say, "I love you," and is instead being given a dose of his father's cold reality. Don't worry about whether people like you, Maxson tells him, worry about whether they do right by you. It's a powerful piece of writing - a comment not just on fathers and sons but the human condition in general - and, in this production, it gets the same sort of reaction as when Dr. Huxtable told Theo, "I brought you into this world, and I'll take you out."
The problem is not with Fishburne. I was lucky enough to see him in the world premiere of Two Trains Running at the Yale Rep, and he has grown as an actor in the intervening 15 years. He approaches the role of Maxson with the near reverence of someone approaching Lear or Willy Loman, and it results in a brilliantly crafted and nuanced performance. In his hands, Maxson can be gentle, a backyard philosopher, a teller of tales - but he's also a man who has made some bad choices, whose hopes and aspirations were defeated by reality, and who is ultimately self-destructive of what little happiness he has managed to attain. Fishburne has no trouble at all showing us the rage and unhappiness beneath the amiable facade. And when he calls Cory outside, it is with a power that signals the audience that the mood in the room is about to change.
The problem is with Cory, played by Bryan Clark. He's the one we're supposed to connect with. But Clark doesn't give us the reaction we need for Maxson's creed to come off as blistering as it ought to. This is just a whiny teenager being taken down a peg, not an idealistic youth who believes there are more opportunities for black athletes than his father had, and not an insecure son devastated by his father's refusal to give him affection. But when we, as an audience, have nothing invested in Cory, the power is drained from the scene.
A similar problem appears with Angela Bassett in the role of Maxson's wife, Rose. In the first act, Rose is nothing more than a stereotypical "little woman." She sings when she does the laundry, she's always got a little extra food if someone drops by, and she playfully swats away her husband's advances. When the second act gives Rose rather more to do, Bassett only rarely rises to the challenge. On two very brief occasions, she gives Rose a true moment of reality, and it's chill-inducingly good. Bassett is obviously capable of a subtle and surprising turn; it is just missing for the bulk of this show.
Happily, the remainder of the cast brings their "A-Game." Kadeem Hardison is excellent as Lyons, Maxson's older son, who wants to be a musician and slides through scenes wearing a sharp suit and moving to his own rhythm. Orlando Jones is outstanding as Gabriel, Maxson's brother, who suffered a brain injury and speaks of having actually met Saint Peter. And Wendell Pierce is splendidly animated as Bono, Maxson's friend and partner, who has a similar life but somehow seems content with it. When the play opens, Maxson and Bono are having a drink after work. Pierce and Fishburne both easily find the tempo in Wilson's dialogue - coming out of their mouths, the words sound perfectly genuine, not forced or scripted in any way. It is in scenes like this one, not the more tension-filled confrontations, where this production best serves as a tribute to the memory of August Wilson.
Fences runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through October 1, 2006. For information, see www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Pasadena Playhouse - Sheldon Epps, Artistic Director; Lyla White, Executive Director - presents Fences by August Wilson. Scenic Design Gary L. Wissmann; Costume Design Dana Rebecca Woods; Lighting Design Paulie Jenkins; Sound Design Pierre Dupree; Casting Michael Donovan, C.S.A; Stage Manager Conwell S. Worthington III; Assistant Stage Manager Lea Chazin; Directed by Sheldon Epps.