Stage Review: Strong production of 'Fences' by Pittsburgh Playwrights
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Clockwise from left: Chuck Timbers (seated), Kevin Brown, Jonathan Berry and Jonas Chaney in Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre's production of "Fences."
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Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, the Penn Theatre, 4809 Penn Ave., Garfield.
When: Through Sept. 12. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15 advance, $20 at door; 412-441-2213.
Pittsburgh audiences may be used to seeing August Wilson plays produced at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, but Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is fast establishing itself as a skilled presenter of Wilson's works. There was last season's strong production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the Wilson vignettes at the Byham this past February and, now, an equally impressive production of Wilson's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fences."
One of the things Pittsburgh Playwrights does very well is showcase Wilson's stupendous writing. The plays obviously don't require expensive sets, costumes or lighting. They don't need famous actors or a large stage. Artistic director Mark Clayton Southers' company doesn't have any of those things but Southers, who has met Wilson and been inspired and encouraged by him, gathers talented local artists who obviously love the plays and are able to convey that through insightful, sensitive performances.
The intimacy of the tiny Penn Theatre works well for "Fences," and director Eileen J. Morris teases out the relationships between characters so that some moments are so brutally open and honest they're difficult to watch.
"Fences" is, at heart, a family drama and, like Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," to which it's been compared, "Fences" says as much about society as it does about its own characters. At the center of the story is Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh trash collector and one-time baseball star of the Negro Leagues. Born too soon to benefit from the integration of professional baseball, Troy's bitterness and lost dreams threaten to overtake his life. Told in the pre-Civil Rights era of 1957-1965, Troy's story is a constant balancing act between holding on to what he has -- job, family and friends -- and his inability to break free from the past.
That division between past and present is separated by one of the many metaphorical fences in Wilson's play. As Troy constructs a physical fence around his house at the wishes of his wife, Rose, we learn that fences are supposed to keep some things out and some things in, but that they rarely succeed in either.
Southers' design features a creaky old back gate through which most of the characters enter and exit. This constant flow emphasizes how flimsy a divider a fence really is. Even Troy's name, "Maxson," a combination of Mason and Dixon, the line dividing the Southern slave states from the North, points out how our attempts to separate things -- life, ideas, time, people and emotions -- fail. The past, personal and historical, influences everything in the present. Troy's life plays out in the shadow of slavery. The sins of the father are certainly visited upon the sons even as new generations struggle to break free from the old. Lust, anger and frustration wreak havoc. Love and friendship dissolve. Over and over, we see that fences can't keep the bad out or the good in.
It's a hard lesson to learn for Troy, who starts out the play feeling all-powerful, boasting about his successful struggle to stave off death, which he recounts as a physical fight that he won by sheer strength. Jonas Chaney hits all of Troy's notes just right. With all his faults, there's a great deal to like about Troy, and Chaney nails his humor and magnetism. Troy's selfishness, even brutality, though, always bubbles below the surface. Chaney's Troy is tightly wound, always moving. He conveys a tension that's like a guitar string that, under the right circumstances, can make lovely music but is always one turn away from a very sour note.
Chuck Timbers plays Troy's friend Bono. Where Troy is nervous energy, Bono is calm and cool, like a planet traveling around a hot sun. Bono has found more peace than Troy, and Timbers adds a quiet humor and a watchful eye that takes everything in, assesses it and fits it into his world.
Also circling Troy are his sons, Lyons and Cory, played by Jonathan Berry and Ruel Davis. Lyons is the more laid-back, a musician who grew up without the incarcerated Troy around very much. Berry brings an easy swagger and sense of fun, but that's really just the surface of Lyons. Berry allows him a deeper understanding of his life and surroundings, and a somewhat sad realization of his own failings. Like Bono, Lyons watches and takes things in. Neither has given up but they live with an acceptance of the world's shortcomings that Troy never possesses.
Davis shows amazing depth for his 18 years but, if there's one scene that doesn't quite work, it's near the end of the play when Cory sings one of Troy's blues songs with his half-sister Raynell (played by the spunky Taylor Erniece Whitley, though the role is alternately played by Micah-Shai Randall Turner). It's a difficult scene in which Cory realizes all that Troy left behind. Cory sees Troy in Raynell and comes to accept at least some of Troy in himself. Davis doesn't fully accomplish this transformation.
While it can be said that this is Troy's play and that Wilson focuses on the links and transitions between the generations of men, he by no means shortchanges the central role of Troy's wife, Rose. Much has been made over the fact that Wilson's own mother was named Daisy and that this character is named after a flower as well. He certainly paints her with loving respect. Rose is the glue of the family. She's pragmatic, loving, wise and, above all, strong. She never backs down in the face of Troy's anger or mistakes.
It's thanks to Rita Gregory that Rose is so vibrant in this production. Rose has the potential to be lost in Troy's whirlwind of action and emotion, but Gregory's Rose stands her ground. It's an extremely sensitive portrayal of a woman who has made the choice to define herself through her family but whose self-awareness includes an understanding of herself that is separate from the family unit. Kevin Brown plays Gabriel, Troy's brain-damaged brother who serves as a sort of Shakespearean fool, whose words are both cryptic and wise. Brown is sympathetic and movingly pulls off the final scene in which Gabriel opens the heavens for Troy with a primal shout that contains a mix of power, hope, outrage and celebration.
If anything, "Fences" has gained meaning in the almost 20 years since its first performance because Wilson insists we measure where we are now against where his characters were then. This production never loses sight of that. It allows no fence between Troy's present and our own and it does justice to a remarkable script that has rightfully established its place as an American theater classic.
First Published August 27, 2004 12:00 am