“Fences,” the play that cemented playwright August Wilson’s reputation as one of the most insightful and versatile writers of the Twentieth Century, has returned to the city where it enjoyed its world premiere nearly 30 years ago at the Yale Repertory Theatre, this time in a new production at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, directed with great sensitivity and deliberation by Phylicia Rashad.
“Fences” won Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize and represents the 1950’s in Wilson’s remarkable 10-play American Cycle, chronicling the African-American experience in this country in each decade of the Twentieth Century. It tells the story of a Pittsburgh garbage man, Troy Maxson, who demonstrated great talent and promise as he played baseball for the Negro Leagues in the years just prior to the integration of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson. Following a stint in prison, Maxson met and married his second wife, Rose, and now lives with her and their teenaged son, Cory, in the Steel City’s Hill District, a once vibrant African-American enclave.
The play, which will run at the Long Wharf through December 22, is set in the Maxson’s back yard where Troy is in the process of building a fence around his property for his wife, doesn’t contain a lot of physical action, as is typical of most of Wilson’s plays. When action does occur, it serves to startle, as when a possessed piano swings into chaotic sound (“The Piano Lesson”) or the collective journey of African slaves to American soil is suddenly acted out by a young black man (“Gem of the Ocean”). Here in “Fences,” the bit of sudden action involves a fight between two men with a baseball bat, an altercation that is a brief as it is disturbing.
What powers a Wilson play, however, is the language of its characters. Wilson captures, as probably no other playwright has been able to do so exquisitely, the cadences, the rhythms, the naturalness and the honesty of his characters’ speech. The conversations are so real and so rich that one can’t help but be engrossed by the back and forth dialogue that captures the slang and inflexions of the particular decade and situation as well as the geographic and experiential backgrounds of each of the participants.
Rashad has directed Wilson’s elegant embrace of language with a choreographer’s care. Each inflection, every raised voice, each glance all seem carefully timed to capture the essence of character and motivation. It becomes a genuine pleasure just to listen to the lines being spoken. They take on a musicality and life of their own that not only transports one fully and totally to post-war Pittsburgh but into the hearts and minds of the characters themselves, even as they deny the fears that cause them to react angrily to those they are struggling to love.
It is obvious that Rashad has taken similar care with the casting process, as there isn’t one sub-par performance in the bunch. Each member of the seven-person cast delivers a believable, heart-felt performance that immediately sears itself into the audience’s memory. These are people we come to know intimately and can understand, as well as surprise.
Esau Pritchett is mightily effective as Troy, capturing the man’s confident swagger and physical prowess, caught between his younger promise and expectations and his current situation as a frustrated provider for his family’s needs. Pritchett conveys the man’s demons suitably subtly, while clearly depicting his efforts to adhere to a noble standard that is not always achievable in the midst of his culture and his community’s economic situation.
Pritchett is not as hulking a presence as James Earl Jones was in the original production, fitting Rose’s description to her son that, “when your daddy walked through the house he was so big he filled it up.” But at the same time, he allows Troy to become more of an everyman, someone easily identifiable to the audience. Pritchett’s tall, lanky, slightly bulky frame readily fits a man who’s seen both center fields and prison yards, who “sometimes,” according to Rose, “when he touched he bruised. And sometimes when he took me in his arms, he cut.” He is especially moving as he becomes increasingly isolated from his loved ones and friends, as his single-mindedness and pride alienates those around him, and as a promotion at work unexpectedly destroys the camaraderie that has nurtured him.
The single-named actress Portia offers a portrait of the long-suffering, yet quietly assertive Rose that is wonderfully affirming yet appropriately heartbreaking. She depicts Rose’s determination as something that has grown and strengthened over the years, contributing to an understated wisdom that helps Rose maneuver through her husband’s tirades and anxieties. The actress doesn’t stint on allowing Rose’s fears to show through, however, depicting the woman’s wish to keep her family close despite the temptations of an ever-encroaching outside world. As directed by Rashad, Portia delivers Rose’s lines as spoken arias, permitting them to soar and swell in a naturalistic tone.
Phil McGaston plays Troy’s best friend Jim Bono with a deep-seated voice that is stunning in its authenticity. He is loyal and helpful to Troy, yet willing to caution Troy when his actions threaten to disturb his relationships with his wife and his son. Chris Myers does a fine job embodying Troy’s son Cory, whose dreams of a football scholarship are sabotaged by a father perhaps threatened by a son’s potential opportunities. He is a suitable mix of teenage resentment and familial yearning, as Clay tries to determine his place in his family and his prospects for the future.
Some poignant comic relief is provided by Jared McNeill as Troy’s son Lyons from his first marriage whose visits to his father seem remarkably timed to coincide with the older man’s paydays, while G. Alvarez Reid is sweetly touching as Troy’s mentally disturbed brother who enjoys a close understanding relationship with his sister-in-law and nephew, while being unknowingly exploited by his brother. Little Taylor Dior evinces a great deal of talent and poise in her late play arrival on the scene.
John Iacovelli has designed a realistic looking back yard scene, complete with the effect of burned-out grass, with glimpses through the curtained windows into a very late 40’s-early 50’s looking kitchen. Esosa has dressed the cast in costumes that reflect the economic status of the wearers as well as their aspirations. Xavier Pierce’s unobtrusive yet essential lighting anchors each scene in the appropriate time of day.
Unfortunately Wilson’s play doesn’t always make clear how much time has passed between certain scenes which can have you scratching your head until you realize that it is several days later and not the next morning. It isn’t enough to take away from the overarching trajectory of the play which accrues interest and power as the evening progresses.
Rashad has had previous experience in directing Wilson as well as in appearing in his plays. She played the main character in the Broadway production of “Gem of the Ocean,” for example. Her respect and admiration for Wilson, who died in 2005, is apparent in the meticulous production she has given one of his most-loved plays, one that effectively and memorably conveys a slice of life on Pittsburgh’s Hill. Long Wharf’s production of “Fences” is always absorbing and nothing less than fascinating. It is well worth spending time on the Hill this holiday season.
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