BWW Review: FENCES at Virginia Rep Is a Perfect Realization of a Great Play
A premium-quality production of a premium-quality play-what more can an audience member ask for? Virginia Rep's Acts of Faith Festival entry is August Wilson's "Fences," the best-known of his Century Cycle, ten plays covering the ten decades of the 20th century. Like most of the plays in the cycle, "Fences"-winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award-looks at a slice of black life in Pittsburgh.
Troy Maxson, the central character in the play, is a 53-year-old garbage man who used to play baseball in the Negro Leagues. A bit too old to have moved to the majors after Jackie Robinson, Maxson has gone on to clock 18 years as a responsible husband (to his adored wife Rose) and father (to 17-year-old Cory).
His past contained more than baseball, though, including an early marriage and a stint in prison. His son from that first relationship, Lyons, lives nearby, as does Troy's brother Gabriel, victim of a brain injury in World War II. And Troy has a work friend, Bono, whom he met in prison and who's also gone on to have a good, stable, hardworking life.
But what does it take to live a life like that, with the many restrictions and redlines facing black people in midcentury America? There's discussion of home buying and getting furniture on credit. There's Troy's effort to be the first black garbage man in Pittsburgh to drive a truck rather than ride the back, emptying the trash cans. There's the memory of a sports dream denied, thrown into relief by Cory's recruitment as a college football player.
Troy's youth was brutal, and he's trying to make life for Cory a little easier by instilling an unrelenting toughness in him. But even Troy can't fully live that life; like any human, he craves a little rest, a little fun, a little food for the soul. And when he finds that, he hurts Rose, who is also sacrificing personal dreams to contribute to their good life.
Under Tawnya Pettiford-Wates's expert direction, this gorgeous play is perfectly realized. James Craven is masterful as Troy-he has a big physical presence and a voice that electrifies. There's a tremendous range of emotion for him to play, and he hits every note.
Equally strong is Lisa Strum as Rose, with her own wide spectrum of feelings to convey-playful, sexy, loving, pleading, with a backbone of iron. J. Ron Fleming, Jr.'s Bono is wonderful, illuminating the pressures that formed both him and Troy. Joe Marshall inhabits Lyons completely, showing a different way to navigate life, yet seeking his father's approval.
Jamar Jones is good as the wounded teenager who becomes a stronger adult, and Horace E. Smith is devastating as damaged but love-filled Gabriel. And all the technical elements are great, from Josafath Reynoso's beautiful backyard set to Nia Safarr Banks's period-perfect costumes to Andrew Bonniwell's straightforward lighting. Nicholas Seaver's sound design is excellent, too.
The humanity shown by these characters-all simply living life against obstacles, though none of this is simple at all-goes right to the soul. It's an apt choice for the Acts of Faith.
"Fences" at the Sara Bell and Neil November Theatre at Virginia Rep Center, 114 W. Broad St., through March 1
Info: va-rep.org or (804) 282-2620
Photo credit: Jason Collins Photography