BWW Reviews: FENCES at Long Wharf Theatre

Phylicia Rash­ad, who directed the definitive version of Lorraine Hansbury's A Raisin in the Sun last year at the Westport Country Playhouse, has set a new standard for August Wilson's plays with her direction of Fences. Wilson's plays have vivid dialogue, but many productions tend to rely on one charismatic performer and the other actors have to pray to be noticed. Rash­ad tells Wilson's story, Fences, as an ensemble piece at the Long Wharf Theatre. What a brilliant concept! Why didn't anyone else think of this before?

Set in the Hill district of Pittsburgh in 1957, the play revolves around Troy Maxon (Esau Pritchett), a former gifted baseball player. His wife, Rose (Portia) recalled, "When your daddy walked through the house he was so big he filled it up. That was my first mistake. Not to make him leave room for me." Maxon, well, maximizes complexity. By the time the race barriers in professional baseball were broken, he was too old to play. He also had a stint in jail. Now he works as a garbage man. And, yes, he is bitter about his life. He is also illiterate, but street savvy and ruthless enough to sign papers that give him the money intended for his brother, Gabriel (G. Alverez Reid), who was wounded in World War II. Then there are the strained relationships he has with his sons, Lyons (Jared McNeill), a would-be entertainer, and Cory (Chris Myers), who is good enough at high school football to attract the attention of a scout. The only ones he doesn't have conflicts with are his friend, Jim Bono (Phil McGlaston) and his young daughter, Raynell (Taylor Dior), who was conceived when he cheated on Rose.

Troy promised Rose he would build a fence around their house. The fence is erected in parts during the play, and takes on more meaning with each of Troy's conflicts and demons. At one point, Bono remarks that some fences are put up to keep people out and some are put up to keep people in. Troy had no breaks in life. He recalled that when he left his abusive father as a teenager, he realized that the world outside was huge, and he had to find a way to manage it. This brief revelation reverberated in the collaborative effort of Rash­ad and set designer John Iacovelli. Parts of the interior of the house are visible when Rose is inside, not privy to some of Troy's conversations, and even after Troy's death when Lyons is alone inside while his half-brother is outside. This is very effective, both visually and emotionally. There is also a garden - mostly dust - which symbolizes Troy's failures.

August Wilson explained, "I once wrote a short story called 'The Best Blues Singer in the World' and it went like this: 'The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.' End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I've been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I'm not sure what it means, other than life is hard."

And so is giving new vigor to a play, even one as powerful as Fences. Rash­ad's vision made all the characters stronger and more memorable. The casting was flawless. Portia was totally credible as a woman who "planted" herself in her husband's life, only to realize that it was "hard and rocky" and that "when he touched he bruised." McNeill was charming as Lyons and Myers believable as a teenager who wants to love and respect his difficult father. Dior is a delight as Raynell. McGlaston is warm, wise and personable as Troy's friend. Reid is moving as Gabriel, the former soldier who had only gentleness in his soul. Pritchett is formidable as the complicated Troy - intimidating yet touching as he tries to control his world, accept his defeats and fight death.

Fences runs through December 22. Postpone your holiday shopping if you must, but don't miss this production of Fences. It's not just because of the brilliant cast and director. The intimacy of the Long Wharf stage adds so much to the theatregoer's experience, especially in a play such as Fences. Here's a gift-giving idea. Give your family and closest friends an early Christmas present - tickets to this marvelous play.

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Sherry Shameer Cohen Sherry Shameer Cohen is an award winning parachute journalist and blogger who is always looking for more challenging work. Her articles and photos have appeared in Connecticut Magazine, Greenwich Magazine, Stamford Plus, The Advocate, Greenwich Time, The Minuteman, Connecticut Jewish Ledger, The Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish Press, The New Jewish Voice, and various daytime magazines. She has stage managed, designed flyers, programs and props for community theatre and reviewed theatre for the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, Theater Inform and New England Entertainment Digest. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Ken, and her two little drama kings, Alexander Seth Cohen and Jonathan Ross Cohen.

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