Playwright August Wilson is famous for his 10-play cycle examining the experience of black people in the United States, and none of his plays stands as revered as "Fences," the sixth in the series.
It was both a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner in 1983, and the Milwaukee Rep opened its production of the play Friday night under the direction of Lou Bellamy, the artistic director at Minneapolis’ Penumbra Theatre, a company dedicated to exploration of the black experience.
If there is one thing to take away from this production, it’s how similar the experience is for both black and white men in their relationship with their sons, their wives and, indeed, themselves.
David Alan Anderson delivers a towering performance as Troy Maxson, a middle-aged black man who has been married and divorced, in prison for 15 years for an accidental murder and a Negro Leagues baseball player of great distinction.
He has been married to Rose for 18 years and now makes his living as a municipal trash collector in Pittsburgh. He has two sons, Lyons from his first marriage and the tempestuous Cory from Rose.
Troy is an angry inferno in an almost continuous boil over the demands of his life, bills, lack of opportunity and continual tensions with both of his sons. He is obviously in love with Rose, deeply and passionately, but he is unable to have any kind of meaningful relationship with either Lyons or Cory.
Troy is a man of extremes. He sees his life, and the life of his circle, in terms of baseball, always looking for the wicked curve or the high hard slider. It is only through talent, that was not recognized by the white men, and native intelligence that he jumped on the pitch for a home run.
And it is only home runs that count in Troy’s life. He has no use for a single or a walk. It is only a heroic cut that matters to Troy.
Kim Staunton’s Rose has made a home for Troy and shares in both his joys and sorrows until the moment he reveals himself to be a cheater. The depth of her pain is moving and brittle. Staunton is every second wife in the world, trying her best and saddened by "not being enough."
Lyons (James T. Alfred) is a musician, a profession that Troy has no stomach for. He wants Lyons, who lives away from Troy and Rose, to find a real job, something that will provide stability. Alfred gives everything to his role, and underneath his jive, there is the unmistakable air of uncertainty.
The only jarring part of the play is the casting of Edgar Sanchez as Cory, the football playing son who lusts after a college career as a way to fill the shoes of his father. Sanchez is another piece of evidence in the continuing struggle of theater companies to cast actors as believable athletes in stage productions. Simply put, Sanchez doesn’t move like an athlete. When he takes swings with a bat, it looks awkward, as if he’s never actually taken a turn at the plate. He doesn’t resemble a football player either, practicing jukes and drives that prove unrealistic and more dance than halfback.
Sanchez is a wonderful actor, but when you have a non-athlete trying to be a jock, the effect is always jarring to me and detracts from the rhythm and momentum of a production. Not just in this play, but it becomes a discordant not in an otherwise seamless production.
Having said that, both Alfred and Sanchez are powerful emotional foils for Tory and both sons have their moments of brutal honesty with their father.
"You can’t change me Pop," Lyons says. "I’m 34 years old. If you wanted to change me, you should have been there when I was growing up."
And Cory, after a passionate battle with Troy, reveals his almost hatred.
"You ain’t never done nothing but hold me back," Cory shouts. "Afraid I was gonna be better than you. All you ever did was try and make me scared of you."
Troy also has a troubled relationship with his best friend Bono (Marcus Naylor) because the relationship is filled with blind admiration that Bono holds for Troy. About the only normal relationship is the one between Troy and his brother Gabriel, who was injured during the war, turning him into a psychological bundle of odd behaviors. It may well be that the love Troy has for his brother is the only genuine love in his life.
"Fences" is the final production of the season for The Rep and continues their commitment to broadening the base of their audience. Bellamy has given to The Rep a top flight production of a play that is obviously about being black, but is also about being a father and husband and a man.
"Fences" runs through May 22 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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