There’s a lot to live up to for anyone producing August Wilson’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Fences.” The sixth play in Wilson’s vaunted 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle is a towering emotional epic that’s comparableto Greek tragedy in its elemental depiction of troubled father-son and husband-wife relationships.
In director Monty Cole’s staging for American Blues Theater, Wilson’s 1950s-set drama swings for the fences with mixed results. Despite strong leading performances and an ensemble that doesn’t flinch from going big with the rawest of emotions, the staging is hampered by sluggish pacing and tentative moments when Wilson’s rich, rhythmic dialogue becomes more laborious than lyrical. The brilliance of the words glimmers through in shards rather than full light, resulting in a tantalizing but frustrating production.
The plot follows 53-year-old city garbage collector Troy Maxon (Kamal Angelo Bolden), once a Negro League baseball phenom with stats rivaled only by the likes of Babe Ruth. He had more than enough talent to be a star in the Major Leagues, but by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Troy was well past his prime. As his skills and prospects diminished, his bitterness grew.
Troy’s youngest son Cory (Ajax Dontavius) is also a gifted athlete, a high school football star with a college scholarship within his reach. But as Troy’s wife Rose (Shanesia Davis) celebrates that news, she’s met with virulent hostility from her husband. Disillusioned by his own treatment at the hands of professional sports and deeply conflicted that his son could succeed where he did not, Troy is not afraid to actively sabotage his son’s career to make a point.
Wilson makes that father/son conflict roil with heat and profundity, elevating a classic man vs. man trope into high drama as elemental as a hurricane. Rose, meanwhile, is the backbone of the family, her generosity and matter-of-fact authority serving as an uneasy bridge over the troubled waters raging between Troy and Cory.
There are no wasted words in Wilson’s dense, winding dialogue. Even the most seemingly offhand conversation or quasi-drunken aside in “Fences” is layered, as Wilson tackles everything from the inflated prices the only local store charges for produce to the institutional racism that cost Troy his baseball career and kept him on the back of the garbage truck — never in the driver’s seat –for years. It also tackles the fallout from Troy’s swaggering machismo, which manifests in his bouts of raging, barely controlled violence.
In addition to Rose and Cory, the frequent targets of Troy’s temper include his brother Gabriel (Manny Buckley), a veteran who guards against phantom “hellhounds” only he can see and speaks of conversing with Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven.Troy also has an older son, Lyons (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II) who is determined (much to Troy’s disgust) to be a musician. Finally, there’s Troy’s best friend Jim Bono (Martel Manning). Both are garbage men, emptying the bins into the truck’s gaping maw, living for the moments when they can kick back with a flask and dream of better things.
Bolden’s mercurial Troy and Davis’ regally authoritative, deeply compassionate Rose anchor “Fences.” Bolden has an unmistakable charisma even when Troy is inflicting ruthless cruelties on his loved ones. Davis brings a formidable light and steely-spined dignity to Rose. This is a woman who knows precisely how and when to wield unquestioning authority.
Wilson’s dialogue is filled with nods toward powers beyond the pale of the earth’s parameters. Buckley’s angelic Gabriel carries a horn, the better to alert St. Peter to open the pearly gates. Troy challenges both the Devil and Death to battle.
That unearthly aspect of “Fences” is emphasized in Yeaji Kim’s scenic design, which has the set enclosed on two sides by the audience and the other two by the titular fence, an edifice that almost dwarfs the cast as it vaults above them. A bench flush against one side of the wall allows Cole to keep most of the cast on stage at all times, watching and reacting to the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Lighting designer Jared Gooding periodically bathes the stage and its players in red, as sound designer Rick Sims’ subtly discordant audio creates an uneasy, otherworldly effect. The ethereal lighting and soundscape are initially effective but ultimately repetitive and cumbersome enough to contribute to the pacing issue that hampers “Fences” throughout.
American Blues Theater’s staging gives the show’s complicated metaphors and characters traction. Tighten up the pacing and lose the tentativeness that sadly defines some of the dialogue, and this production of “Fences” could truly resonate.