BWW Review: Ford's Theatre's FENCES - A Fascinating, New Take On A Wilson Classic
As August Wilson's Twentieth Century Cycle makes its artistic progress, from premiere local productions to revived classics, we will inevitably adjust to the concept of new takes on very familiar material. We now have "Wilsonian actors," who can find dependable gigs in the Washington, D.C. area thanks to the enduring legacy of the 10-play cycle-in precisely the same way we have had Shakespearian actors for generations already.
It won't be the novelty of these plays that will continue to draw us to Wilson's compelling portraits of the Hill District in Pittsburgh; it will be his indelibly drawn characters given new life by artists now putting their own personal stamp on his work.
With Ford's Theatre's new production of Fences, director Timothy Douglas has assembled a combination of seasoned Wilsonians and local stars making their first appearance in the cycle. Set in 1957, Fences is Wilson's most classically-oriented play in the cycle, with generational rivalry, adultery, and a central figure-Troy Maxson-whose bitterness and self-absorption lead to personal tragedy. Still, as with his other plays, the stage is also populated by popular, lovable characters, along with a nod to the supernatural and outright mythical.
- the cast, Wilson newcomer Craig Wallace offers a more subtle take on Troy, a trash collector who was once a star with the legendary Homestead Greys of the Negro Leagues (a character modeled on a ballplayer who, like Troy, became a trash collector in 1950's Pittsburgh). Among the Wilson veterans, Doug Brown turns in a memorable performance as Troy's friend Bono, whose history with Troy goes back to their time in prison, while KenYatta Rogers puts his indelible stamp on Lyons, Troy's elder son and an aspiring jazz musician.
Jefferson A. Russell is memorable as Troy's brother Gabriel, a man who-like Troy-lives in a world where the supernatural is just over his shoulder. Wilson portrays Gabriel as a wounded WW II veteran, but truth be known both Maxson men are haunted, and wrestle-sometimes literally-with demons that others routinely dismiss, no matter these men's personal reality.
Perhaps the most interesting interpretation here is Erika Rose's turn as Troy's wife, Rose. Wilson's female characters are remarkable for their strength; but in this production, Rose also de-emphasizes the traditional working-class dialect. Even though her background is as troubled as Troy's, and although she is very much of the Hill District, there is a polish to some of Ms. Rose's delivery that hints at the middle-class aspirations which were becoming more common, and incrementally more achievable, by the late 1950's.
This difference serves to heighten the struggle Troy and Rose have over the future of their son, Cory-the explosive, vulnerable Justin Weeks. A sports phenom with the potential for a college football scholarship, Cory's ambitions run smack up against Troy's cynicism and paranoia. The titanic struggle between father and son is one of the tragedies to unfold here, and Wilson doesn't hold back in offering audiences the stark realism Troy needs to instill in Cory.
Lauren Helpern's scenic design combines the real and surreal, with 2-story brick rowhouse and a vivid sepia-tone image of a half-built street from the Hill District across the upstage wall. The tree-where Troy hangs a ragged old practice ball for batting practice-rises naturally but transitions by its peak to the surreal members of an other-worldly body, fingers articulated towards the sky. Andrew R. Cissna's lighting captures the complex, often spiritually-driven elements of Wilson's work, while Helen Huang's costumes keep us thoroughly grounded in the reality of 1950's Pittsburgh.
Admittedly, this Ford's Theatre production of Fences operates in the shadow of a certain recently-released, Oscar-winning film version, but what of it? August Wilson is meant to be savored live; he can't be contained in a damned DVD box. And with local heroes like Wallace and Rose as the headliners, it's not to be missed.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.
Fences runs through October 27 at Ford's Theatre, 511 10th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets call 888-616-0270, or visit: https://events.fords.org/productions/a-christmas-carol/#tickets