BWW Reviews: August Wilson's FENCES Is a Solid Base Hit
Written by August Wilson, Directed by Eric C. Engel; Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Costume Designer, Molly H. Trainer; Lighting Designer, Russ Swift; Set Designer, Michael Griggs; Props Master, Joe Stallone; Fight Choreographer, Angie Jepson
CAST: Daver Morrison, Jacqui Parker, Warren Jackson, Gregory Marlow, Jermel Nakia, Jared Michael Brown, Bezawit Strong
Performances through September 7 at Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theater, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Gloucester Stage Company concludes its 35th season with August Wilson's Fences, the winner of both the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. The third opus he wrote for his ten-play "The Pittsburgh Cycle," Fences is set in the 1950s and bats sixth in the line-up of Wilson's unparalleled chronicle of 20th century American history from the perspective of African-Americans. Artistic Director Eric C. Engel leads a superb cast, all but one of whom makes their GSC debuts, and crafts a production that strives to illustrate the universal nature of one man's story.
Troy Maxson (Daver Morrison) is a former star of the Negro Baseball League who never got the opportunity to play in the major leagues. A 53 year-old family man working as a trash collector in Pittsburgh, his life has the hallmarks of a hardscrabble version of success, but he is consumed by his anger and bitterness. His long-suffering wife Rose (Jacqui Parker) is the power behind the throne and the glue that holds the family together, being supportive of Troy while advocating for their son Cory (Jared Michael Brown) to fulfill his dream of playing college football. However, their bonds are tested and stretched to the breaking point as Troy follows the path of a modern day tragic hero.
Fences is a compelling story which Wilson weaves with authenticity and the gift of powerful language. It takes a forceful performance to convey Troy's personal strengths, as well as his demons, and Morrison steps up to the plate from the first pitch. He is physically imposing and blessed with a sonorous speaking voice (which he also puts to good use when called upon to sing a few bars) that commands attention. In fact, there are some parallels between his character and that of Arthur Miller's Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman), a man who is out of step with his time and grappling to maintain control in his home, even as he spirals out of control in his own life. Descended from slaves and sharecroppers, Troy has no roadmap for living in the nascent Civil Rights era and is guided only by his belief that a man must take responsibility for his family.
Contrary to that guiding principle, Troy often defends his mistakes and selfish choices by stating that he's doing the best he can. Unfortunately, that's not good enough for Rose, who has made innumerable sacrifices in their marriage (Parker's climactic second act diatribe is riveting); nor for Cory, who believes his father doesn't like him; nor for his elder son Lyons (Warren Jackson) from a previous marriage, a jazz musician who cannot earn Troy's respect. The relationship with his brother Gabriel (Jermel Nakia) is complicated due to the latter's war-related traumatic head injury (and the fact that Troy used his Army disability check to buy his house). Gabe is trusting and childlike, but he actually looks out for Troy's best interests in a selfless way, believing that he is the Angel Gabriel who will get St. Peter to open the gates of heaven for his loved ones. Troy's drinking buddy Jim Bono (Gregory Barlow) sees him for who he is and quietly tries to intervene to arrest his old friend's self-destruction, but Troy would rather wander than follow Bono's moral compass.
The pace in the first act might best be described as leisurely, taking perhaps more time than necessary for exposition and to flesh out the characters and their relationships. However, it also provides the opportunity to appreciate the easy camaraderie in the conversations between Troy and Bono, to marvel at Nakia's commitment to his role and the choices he makes to garner understanding, and to observe Parker masterfully build the foundation for her character's transformative awakening. None of the characters makes it into the second act without changing, but Brown lets us watch Cory pass from adolescence to adulthood before our eyes, conveying the confusion and bravado with equal aplomb, and showing his struggle to become his own man. Eight-year-old Gloucester resident Bezawit Strong (Raynelle) makes her professional stage debut and melts Cory's tough exterior, as well as the hearts of the audience.
Set Designer J. Michael Griggs and Props Master Joe Stallone transport us to the Maxson's back yard with its vitally important unfinished fence, a baseball suspended on a rope, and the ominous baseball bat resting casually against another fence. Molly H. Trainer's costume designs reflect the family's economic status as working class folks, although Lyons is better tailored, consistent with being a performer. Variations in lighting (Russ Swift) and wonderful musical interludes (jazz, blues) accompany the many scene changes. Kudos to fight choreographer Angie Jepson for creating realistic, violent altercations without drawing any blood.
Fences is written in Wilson's signature style, connecting his characters to their past and African-American culture. However, they are also three-dimensional individuals with strengths and flaws not reserved for members of one race or ethnicity. We can easily identify with Troy Maxson, whose fatal flaw is his anger and whose sins are visited upon his children. It is the universality of the situations faced by the protagonist that gives the play its power, and it is the power of these performances that gives the Gloucester Stage production its emotional resonance.
Photo credit: Gary Ng (Daver Morrison)