Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson and his battles with the world and, increasingly, his own family. At work, he is fighting for a promotion - it's 1957, and Troy says his bosses seem to think that "only white folks got sense enough to drive a truck." At home he is slowly but surely building a fence around his yard - a fence designed, he says, both to keep people out and to keep people in. Troy is always reminiscing about his glory days in baseball - "I hit seven home runs off of Satchel Paige," he says with a combination of pride and anger - but when his teenaged son Cory has a chance of going to college on an athletic scholarship, Troy insists that he be realistic and responsible, and forces him to give up that scholarship for a job at a grocery. Cory says his father is holding him back ("You're scared I'll be better than you") and has never liked him; Troy retorts, "What law say I got to like you?" He lets Cory live in his house, he says, because as a father he has a "duty and responsibility" to do so.
Troy's other son, Lyons, is in his thirties but still looking for an occasional handout to keep going. Troy's brother Gabriel is the neighborhood "character," still suffering from a war wound that left him with a metal plate in his head. Troy's wife of 18 years, Rose, observes it all and loves her husband unconditionally.
Troy is, at many times, the epitome of a devoted provider; as he teaches Cory how to build a fence, and tells him how to set priorities in life, he is tough but inspirational. His fanciful stories of how he "wrestled with death for three days and three nights" almost seem realistic, and show why he has inspired devotion from his wife, his sons and his longtime best friend, Jim Bono. Yet Troy also drives away one son and alienates his wife with his twisted sense of ethics. He takes care of his wife and children, even if that means stealing from his mentally incapacitated brother. And Rose's devotion to him is tested when Troy reveals a betrayal that shakes her to her core, nearly tearing the family apart.
In the play's final scene, set eight years after the main action, Wilson reveals that the family never broke apart despite the trials that Troy put them through. What holds a family like this together? In the end, Wilson suggests, it's the devotion to "duty and responsibility" that Troy drilled into them. Once together, they have no choice but to take care of each other, come what may.
Director Timothy Douglas has been tapped to helm the world premiere of Wilson's newest play, Radio Golf, at Yale Repertory next month; his sure touch here is one of many reasons to look forward to that show. Douglas seems to have fostered a real feeling of community among his cast, and there is a casual, friendly feel to the interaction among the actors.
(There were a few moments in Fences where dialogue was somewhat hard to understand. However, this is probably due less to the actors' voices than to the thrust setup at the Arden's Otto F. Haas Stage.)
As Rose, Stephanie Berry makes you feel her slowly building anguish. Two scenes end with Rose standing alone on stage, and alone in the world, contemplating her next move. When she and Troy finally have their big showdown, she receives horrifying news calmly; yet, as she realizes what the information means to her entire life, she gradually erupts into a rage that feels earned and justified. Berry's performance is, like the show itself, steady and admirable.
Other standouts in the uniformly excellent cast are Bowman Wright as Cory, who puts the audience on his side from the very beginning; and Ray Anthony Thomas as Gabe, heartbreaking in his unquestioning trust and his attachment to Troy and Rose.
As Troy, Ernest Perry, Jr. has moments where he seems less than commanding; at times it's hard to understand why Cory is so afraid of him. But in the end, his performance resonates strongly. As Perry plays him, Troy is hard to love but easy to respect. And as he catalogues all the tribulations of his life, Perry makes you understand why Troy Maxson values that respect over love.
Wilson makes that point without overdoing it. He adds a fair amount of symbolism - the fences, conversations with God, even a character named Gabriel who carries around a horn - but in the end, it's the human relationships that drive Wilson's themes home. And the cast at the Arden conveys the sense of being with a real family. It's that sense of family - and all the good and bad things that suggests - that makes this production so rewarding.
Fences runs through April 3 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Post-show discussions are scheduled on Wednesday, March 16; Thursday, March 17; Sunday, March 20; and Sunday March 27. Ticket prices range from $24 to $40 and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.
Fences is a co-production with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where it will play April 19 - May 15.
Fences Written by August Wilson
- Tim Dunleavy