The Matinee showing of August Wilson’s Fences fell on the twenty fourth, the day after the Giants won the pennant, when many folks throughout the Bay Area were doubtless recuperating from revelries induced by that historic victory. In spite of this, and the inclement weather, a sizable crowd—including Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, School Board member Dana Dean and Congressman George Miller—turned out to see a production more seriously concerned with baseball, redemption, race, and other themes central to American life.
The late August Wilson play premiered in 1985, and won its already distinguished author the first of two Pulitzers. The play is part of the The Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays, each one examining a different decade of the twentieth century through the prism of Pittsburgh’s Hill District and its African American population. Fences takes place in the transitional, iconic 1950’s, and director Terrence Tyrie Ivory does a fine job of capturing that decade’s flavor without making ostentatious efforts to make it a period piece.
Fences tells the story of the Maxon family, with the spotlight unblinkingly set on its patriarch, Troy, a sanitation worker and father of two in his mid-fifties. The play opens on a Friday evening as Troy and his friend Bono are making the jolly walk to Troy’s house, where the two will begin the witticism and whisky-powered brand of jocular time killing that both have obviously observed for decades. In a way neither forced nor cursory, the two friends’ banter manages to highlight many of the issues to come: Troy resents the segregated nature of his job, mocks the overly-hyped stats of baseball stars black and white, and gets a disquieting tinkle in his eye as he discusses an Alabama girl with “hips wide as the Mississippi River.” Though hardship and tragedy will make their violent appearances, much of the play’s action occurs during these moments of ease which, as the play goes on, become harder for Troy to sustain.
Troy’s home is a small but comfortable row-house. It has a well-worn stoop, a roof that wants tarring, and the eponymous fence, a skeletal, wobbly thing that one might generously describe as a work in progress. Beyond the fence stands a tree from which a practice baseball dangles ominously, an ever-present temptation for Troy to lapse into the heady mix of nostalgia and bitterness with which he views life as he recalls his own former prowess on the diamond. The set designers did a commendable job of creating an environment that both radiates human warmth and eerily suggests the sadness to come.
Troy shares his home with his grateful, forgiving, young wife Rose and their only child Cory, a hardworking high school student, promising football player, and almost cripplingly dutiful son to Troy, who has little faith in sports to better the lives of black people. Soon into the first act, we find that football recruiters see much potential in Cory, and Cory, despite his position at the A&P where he works to help his family, is giving serious consideration to their offer. The frictions arising from this ambition are one of the main strands in the plot.
In addition to the three Maxons, two supporting roles enliven the production. One is Lyons, Troy’s son from an earlier relationship. Lyons is mooch in his thirties with avowed musical interests and a magnetic pull towards his father’s paycheck; Troy seems not to mind his son’s solicitations, as they give him a chance to spill out some of his choice insults (e.g. “I’ll go to hell and play blackjack with the devil before I give you ten dollars.”) And then there’s Troy’s brother, Gabe, a self-proclaimed vegetable salesman who received a war wound that left him mentally unstable. Gabe claims to have visited heaven, he carries a bugle to alert the angels, and he speaks like a man who swallowed a full-volume car radio tuned to a loony AM station. He’s a wild presence, but like the Fool in King Lear, Gabe is a character whose apparent ramblings contain much prophetic and poetic power. To Troy’s shame, Gabe is also the funnel through which government subsidies reach Troy’s house, another plot point that will guide the events to follow. Of all the roles, Gabe’s has the most showboating, and Eric Burnes carries off the role with brio and manic energy.
Troy is the center of the play, the proud, angry planet around which all smaller personalities orbit. Wilson’s stage directions stipulate that Troy’s physical largeness be one of his defining qualities, and he carries himself as a man conditionally unfit for a place in life’s background. A marvelous talker, Troy is equal parts fibbing blowhard and street-smart pundit. Initially I thought Dennis McReynold’s performance too given to hammy gestures and histrionics, but as the time went on it became clear that such gestures would come naturally to Troy, a man who’s become too enamored with acting out different parts before different people…especially before a certain shapely gal from Alabama. McReynolds pulls off a strong performance, making Troy both larger than life and wincingly human.
Troy is also the lens through which we view the play’s most significant missing character, Troy’s father, a loveless, humorless sharecropper whose behavior spurned Troy to leave the South at 14. His father’s legacy is a dark one that colors Troy’s own parenting ways: in Cory, Troy finds the one person in whom he can find his overbearing sense of authority recognized, the only man who will call him, “sir,” in earnest. When Cory begins to assert his own interests, and vie for genuine familial love, Troy shows that the sins of the father die hard.
Fences is Wilson’s most famous play, and it is, for political reasons along with legitimate ones, a standard text in college and secondary literature and theater curricula. This makes sense, as the play is positively tumescent with discussion-ready themes: mortality, infidelity, social mobility, race relations, the possibilities and perils of self-reinvention. But while these themes and a few obscure passages leave plenty room for scholarly interpretations, Fences, and this production, is also a work of genuine entertainment, chock-a-block with tuneful, realistic dialogue, humorous anecdotes (including a killer joke about an impossibly over-financed couch), and gripping human drama. The most sympathetic (and perhaps hardest to play) figure might be Rose. She doesn’t get many monologues or saucy one-liners, but she carries herself with fierce dignity, and most of the audience’s audible sighs, teary gulps, and words of encouragement followed actress Lexi Hart’s excellently delivered lines. The palpable level of connection the audience toward Hart was, in itself, worth the price of admission.
It’s also worth noting that Fences is Benicia Old Town Playhouse’s ninety-ninth production. If the plays to come are equally good, then there will be many more plays indeed.