note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Sheila Barth
Playwright August Wilson had his finger on the pulse of the African-American experience in the 20th century, and wrote a precedent-breaking 10-play cycle highlighting each decade with facets of this slice of American history, not only earning fame as a serious writer, but the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his sixth chapter, “Fences,” set in Pittsburgh in 1957. Director Kenny Leon, who is currently at the Huntington, heading up a sterling cast and crew, had collaborated with Wilson for years, successfully bringing the playwright’s works to stages throughout America, and this version is no exception. With every scene in both acts, the erudite audience exploded with appreciative applause, a unique, spontaneous phenomenon.
Besides America’s witnessing a climatic period in history - when President Eisenhower signed the crucial Civil Rights Act in 1957 - American sports became significantly integrated. With Jackie Robinson’s and Hank Aaron’s trailblazing success in baseball, while other Afro-American athletes were distinguishing themselves in boxing, football, track, etc., several individuals, both famous and downtrodden, found the racial shift to be difficult, including Wilson’s primary hero in “Fences,” municipal garbage collector Troy Maxson, a former star in the All-Negro Baseball League. Like Rocky, the boxing underdog, Troy knows he could’ve been a contender - should have been a contender, or outstanding force in baseball - but he blames the whites for holding him back.
Troy is a flawed man, a big, strong, virile, sensuous 53-year-old who can’t escape his ghosts of the past, visions of death, and strong sense of failure. After a rugged past that includes an abusive father, a robbery career and subsequent 15-year stay in the penitentiary, Troy has settled with his lot in life as a garbage man, decrying his missed chance at fame. He tells stories, sings simple songs, insisting that he maintains his integrity. He’s likable, loving, and funloving with his faithful wife, Rose, and best friend and co-worker, Bono, but he’s a closet womanizer who is also mean, unyielding, bent on destroying his outstanding football player teen-age son, Cory’s chances at college recruitment and a scholarship. Unfortunately, Troy can’t escape his own demons. While Rose stands with Cory, hopeful, on the brink of a changing America, Troy is determined to impede the boy’s progress. But there’s more, much more, to this story.
Therein lies a soulful saga of Americana, in this two-act, pulsating, realistic drama that keeps the audience rapt from start to finish. Heightening the atmosphere here, each scene is separated by Dwight D. Andrews’ bluesy, spiritual music. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s set design of Troy and Rose’s shabby home in a poor Pittsburgh neighborhood is great, while Ann Wrightson’s careful lighting design accents the drama and tension of every scene.
John Beasley as Troy and Crystal Fox as Rose are outstanding. Popular TV, movie and stage star Bill Nunn delivers a moving performance as Troy’s brain-damaged veteran brother, Gabriel, who perpetually carries a horn, ready to blow for St. Peter to welcome his loved ones at the gate of heaven, while he struggles unsuccessfully to be out on his own, despite his mental setbacks. Brandon J. Dirden as Troy’s older musician son, Lyons, is carefree, while Warner Miller as Troy’s besieged son, Cory, is powerful, especially during angry, physical confrontations between the two. Rounding out this fine cast are Eugene Lee as Troy’s sidekick, Bono, and little Faith Lambert as Raynell, Troy’s illegitimate little daughter. “Fences” is an eloquent, splendid theatrical work that’s not to be missed.
BOX INFO: Two-act Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, written by August Wilson, appearing through October 11, Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; select Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, October 3,4,7,10,11, at 2 p.m. also October 1 at 10 a.m. at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Main Stage, Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Tickets, $20-$82.50; military, senior discount, $5; subscriber, BU Community discounts, $10; 35 and below tickets, $25; balcony back row tickets, $20; student rush tickets, $15. Call 6617-266-0800 or visit the Box Office or huntingtontheatre.org.