August Wilson's 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning family drama Fences is not exactly what you'd call children's theater. And when Weston Playhouse brings their touring production to the Flynn on October 29, the audience will likely be a lot different than the one with whom I saw the play last week. I caught a student matinee in Weston with a full house of kids.
But their enthusiastic response and mostly rapt interest were a pretty accurate barometer of how Fences was coming across. There were some shaky spots -- this was the first public performance, and at 10 a.m. yet. But the production, sensitively directed by Obie winner Arthur French, did right by a play that has enough humor, poetry and raw power to grab hold of anyone, regardless of age.
Or race. Wilson, a supreme chronicler of the African-American experience, has made it his special pro-ject to capture that on stage. But his works are not just about black America; they're about America. Set in his native Pittsburgh, Fences hits bedrock truths about all fathers and sons, about dreams and defeats, about the fences we use to define our properties and our families.
Fences protagonist Troy Maxson is comparable to Arthur Miller's doomed salesman, Willy Loman. But where Willy believes in the American dream, Troy has been excluded from it: He was a talented baseball player who never made it from the Negro League to the majors. He tries to saddle his son Cory, a high school football star, with his own lowered expectations. Stick with your grocery store job, Troy tells him: "The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football, no way.
"Troy has found his own way to work the white man's system. Having left home and his abusive sharecropper father at 14, he has risen from ex-con to working man, a garbage collector who angles successfully to be promoted to driver even though he hasn't got a license. But he's plagued by the knowledge that he is living off the insurance money from his brother Gabe, a brain-damaged World War II vet. Troy is a victim of a society that does not allow him his manhood, yet in his efforts to grab onto something to call his own, he betrays his wife, son and brother.
Like Shakespeare's Lear, Troy is meant to be a huge, powerful presence that disintegrates before our eyes. "When your daddy walked through the house," Rose tells Cory, remembering the early days of her marriage, "he was so big he filled it up.
" And Wilson, like Shakespeare, is a virtuoso of language. He captures the rhythms of extemporaneous storytelling and the ribald inventiveness of "gin-talk," and his protagonist is a master of both.
Weston's Troy, Charles Turner, is almost there. At the matinee, he still stumbled over the text in places. And, particularly in the first act, he hadn't yet found a variety of colors in Troy's rolling, Uncle Remus rhetoric; his delivery tended to a certain gruff sameness. But Turner has the right size, and he's created a whole character; we understand the power he wields over his family, and we see his charm -- particularly in his easy camaraderie with his best friend Bono, played with heart by Jasper R. McGruder. Even when he's dead wrong, we sympathize with his confusion and his pain.
As Cory, Jacques Cowart III has a natural athletic ease on stage, and he makes vividly clear Cory's progression from forthright optimism to searing disappointment and finally to a kind of peace. It's to his and Turner's credit that, in their ultimate confrontation scene, we really believe they might hurt one another.
As single-minded, simple-minded Gabe, Guiesseppe Jones has enormous appeal but isn't yet quite dangerous enough; his sudden manic outbursts -- "Hellhounds! Hellhounds!" -- need an edge of real terror.
But one of Gabe's entrances is among my favorite moments in the play -- a brilliant interruption that Wilson inserts in the middle of a crucial scene. That scene, when Troy reveals to Rose that he's been having an affair and is about to be a father, is wrenchingly played in Weston's production. Perri Gaffney, who portrays Rose, seems almost too docile in the preceding scenes -- the perfect wife to a fault. But that only makes her explosion in this scene more startling, and moving: "Eighteen years and you wanna come with this," she gasps, reeling with the weight of all that wasted time. Gaffney gets it all -- the tears, the shock, the anger. And in a beautifully directed and played moment later on, she gets her revenge so neatly it's as if she's slipped a shiv into Troy's side.
There's good support from Ron Scott as Lyons, Troy's ne'er-do-well son from a previous marriage, and an adorable performance by Ludlow fifth-grader Angela Milligan as Troy's daughter Raynell. Howard Jones' set, a narrow, gray-stoned rowhouse, effectively suggests both domestic containment and diminished horizons. And, as one audience member pointed out, the progress of the fence-building is engrossing in itself. Lighting by Stuart Duke and costumes by Rachel Kurland speak quietly but eloquently.
By the way, the fences, house and everything else in the set at Weston were made to be easily packed up and unloaded for their New England tour. It's only in Burlington one night -- a too-brief opportunity to catch a solid production of a modern masterpiece. Bring a kid.