James Earl Jones was the star of the original production of Fences, at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, where it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play. Then it was Denzel Washington, in a 2010 Broadway revival, in the larger-than-life role of Troy Maxson, his name itself evoking the grandeur and tragic fall of the unforgettable protagonist of Wilson’s drama. But in McCarter Theatre’s searing, deeply moving production of this masterpiece, it’s August Wilson, the playwright himself, who emerges as the star of the show.
This poetic drama is set in 1957 in the early years of the civil rights movement and focuses on the struggles of a former Negro League baseball player, now a Pittsburgh sanitation worker, and his family. The dialogue is at the same time natural and poetic, and so powerful, humorous, and moving. Wilson, who died in 2005 after completing his highly acclaimed Century Cycle of plays set in every decade of the twentieth century, frequently cited the influence of the blues on his work, and Fences — in its sympathetic, suffering characterizations, in its bitterness and solace in alcohol, humor, language, music, and humanity — resonates with the rich life and tone of a blues song that sticks in the mind and soul.
Fences depicts a family in conflict. Troy (Esau Pritchett), the middle-aged patriarch, is at odds not just with the society that barred him from the major leagues through the 20s, 30s, and 40s and consigned him to a job carrying garbage, but also with his wife Rose (Portia) and sons, 34-year-old Lyons (Jared McNeill) from a failed earlier marriage and 17-year-old Cory (Chris Myers). Troy is indeed a victim of the racism of his time and environment, but he is also a victim of his own bitterness, his personal excesses, and his wary detachment from family and friends.
Early in the first of two acts Troy and Cory clash over Cory’s hopes of gaining a football scholarship to college. Troy, who hit 43 home runs in one season in the Negro League but was born too soon to break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, distrusts the white man’s enticements for Cory and also harbors his own resentment and jealousy over this opportunity that he never had. The conflict grows increasingly hostile as Cory attempts to assert his independence from Troy’s influence, and Troy, seeing his authority and control challenged, fails to accept the changing world of America on the cusp of upheaval, along with his son’s entrance into adulthood and his own aging.
The shattering of the fragile family is complete when Troy comes home, early in the second act, to announce to Rose that he has fathered a child with another woman.
August Wilson and his characters are brilliant storytellers. In the tradition of Arthur Miller — Death of a Salesman in particular — where intense family conflict plays out its tragic drama of the common man against a background of powerful destructive social forces, Fences is a story about families, a marriage and, especially, through the generations, fathers and sons, with the sins of the fathers repeatedly being visited on the sons. It is also a play about the power of speech as our greatest weapon in shaping our stories and our lives and in battling against oppression and death.
In McCarter’s production, in association with Long Wharf Theatre where it opened last month, Mr. Pritchett as Troy is convincing, powerful, charismatic — as a man past his prime, finding himself in a new world, on unfamiliar ground with wife and sons. He’s a storyteller, angry but loving his family, his friends, his life, and fighting, as a great athlete fights to win the game, his battle to turn back mortality. Mr. Pritchett, of course, lacks the physical magnitude of James Earl Jones (Rose describes Troy: “when (he) walked through the house he was so big he filled it up”) and the instant star- recognition of Denzel Washington, but Mr. Pritchett thoroughly engages the audience in his joy and loves, his frustrations, and his anguish. He radiates a gift for spell-binding storytelling, a warm humor and a virtuoso musician’s gift for delivering the music of Wilson’s rich poetic language.
Portia establishes Rose as a worthy counterpart and counterbalance to Troy. She is enormously sympathetic as she moves through the rich territory of emotions required as wife and mother in her fight to keep her family together. Troy and Rose may be the most finely, fully, and convincingly developed husband–wife portrayal in all of Mr. Wilson’s ten plays.
“Jesus, be a fence all around me every day,” Rose sings as she hangs out the laundry at the start of the second scene. The fence that Troy and Cory are building emerges on both sides of the stage as the action progresses. It becomes a symbol of the security and protection — from white America, from his own inner demons, from death itself — that Troy seeks. And it also represents Rose’s struggle to keep the family together against the forces that threaten to pull it apart.
Mr. Myers’ Cory provides the third side of the immediate family triangle, and, though not as fully developed as the character of Troy, Cory faces many of the strains, aspirations, and frustrations of his own generation. Growing up in the shadow of his formidable father, Cory, though in many ways his father’s son, strives bravely, in Wilson’s version of a classic oedipal battle, to break out and achieve manhood on his own terms.
As Troy’s friend Bono, Phil McGlaston creates an engaging, credible, and interesting character foil, a grounded follower in contrast to Troy and his high-energy rashness. He is a worthy confidant, a sharp, funny, sympathetic listener and counterpoint to Troy’s tales, and a concerned friend.
Jared McNeill’s portrayal of Lyons, Troy’s musician older son, vividly and effectively provides yet another dimension in the play, as well as another perspective on the father-son dynamic, with son fully adult and clashing with his father in both values and life style.
In the magnificent role of Gabriel, G. Alverez Reid creates this wounded World War II veteran with great sensitivity and winning, loving detail. Having lost a significant part of his brain in the war effort and often needing help from his brother Troy, Gabriel is a sort of peddler, prophet, and angel of St. Peter, making sporadic appearances at key points in the story. With the character of Gabriel, as with Troy himself in his dark musings on death and the devil, this play, though never leaving its firm grounding in particularities of time and place, does at the same time transport its audience to a realm of spirituality where devils and death, St. Peter and the angels are brought to life.
Appearing in the final scene of the play, set in 1965, eight years after the first eight scenes, Taylor Dior as the seven-year-old Raynell, delivers a spot-on characterization of Troy’s youngest offspring and an appealing hope for a new generation.
John Iacovelli’s dirt back yard, back-porch, worn house setting in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1957, pre-television, pre-electronics, provides the ideal locale for the action of the play. A big tree stands on stage right with a bat leaning against it and ball made of rags tied to it for batting practice. Vivid warm lighting by Xavier Pierce, realistic costumes by ESOSA, and sound by John Gromada contribute rich background and resonance to the characters and concerns of the play.
Though this production does gain great strength from its focus on the ensemble, rather than risking the distractions associated with casting a big-name star, the director of this production is indeed a big star, Phylicia Rashad. An accomplished Tony Award-winning actress, experienced performer and director of Wilson’s work (including Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in 2004 and at McCarter the following year) as well as the acclaimed Claire Huxtable in “The Cosby Show” on TV for many years, Ms. Rashad possesses an extraordinary list of accomplishments on stage and screen, and, in recent years, as director. Her direction here brilliantly manifests her respect for the play and the playwright, bringing out powerfully and vividly the music and meaning of Fences and its characters.
In 2007, in a foreword to Gem of the Ocean, Ms. Rashad commented on Mr. Wilson, “He understood the power of sound and rhythm inherent in words, speech and music. He worked in alignment with that power …. August’s characters are defined by speech — the rhythms of speech serve as emotional building blocks that support the progressive movement of the play.”
In this exciting production of Fences at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Ms. Rashad, with her top-flight design team and ensemble of seven fine actors, has faithfully and imaginatively brought to life the power, beauty, and value of August Wilson’s great drama. McCarter has just announced a one-week extension of this run of Fences, to February 16. It’s a dazzling production of one of the great plays of the 20th century. Those additional seats will fill up fast. Don’t delay.
August Wilson’s “Fences” will run through February 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.