Heat in August

It is a truth universally acknowledged that it’s actually harder to write a rave review than it is to write a pan. How to communicate the thrill of seeing a show that’s just exactly what it should be without simply saying GO SEE THIS SHOW?

Fences Through 8/6: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; Sat 8/6, 2:30 PM only, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, americanbluestheater.com, $25-$45

This is my happy dilemma in reviewing Monty Cole’s stellar production of August Wilson’s Fences at American Blues Theater. With the brilliant Kamal Angelo Bolden in the lead as Troy Maxon, an embittered man determined to keep his sons from outshining him, Fences manages to portray both universal father-son tension and the specifics of that tension as enacted in the Black community of Pittsburgh in the early 1950s. Bolden toggles effortlessly among Troy’s constantly changing moods, capturing in full the terror of his unpredictability.

The play also sketches out the tension between notions of masculine freedom and the requirements of a stable family, as it pivots sharply in act two to examine Troy’s relationship with his second wife Rose (the excellent Shanésia Davis, holding up more than her half of the sky). The pivot works because Cory, whose struggles to emulate his father and secure his approval occupy most of act one, is Rose’s son. As he learns of his father’s betrayal of his mother, boyish disappointment (“How come you don’t like me?”) becomes implacable rage, a transition Ajax Dontavius handles with a combination of actor’s aplomb and son’s fury.

Each of the performances is given the opportunity to blossom through Cole’s staging device of placing all the actors onstage even when they’re offstage. Seated at the side of the playing area, they continue to perform and deepen their characters, consoling each other sometimes, giggling and exchanging nudges at others—commenting on the action in the very best sense of that word. The only exception to this is Rose, as director Cole and scenic designer Yeaji Kim keep the only woman in the play apart from (and perhaps above) the man’s world in which she is compelled to operate. And her meltdown when informed of her husband’s infidelity is sufficient unto itself, no commentary required.

One of the wonderful things about Fences—perhaps Wilson’s most tightly-constructed play—is the way it riffs on Death of a Salesman. The final scenes are deliberately parallel, as Rose insists that Cory pay respect to Troy, for all his failings, just as Linda Loman insists, “Attention must be paid!” There could be families less similar on the surface than the Lomans and the Maxons (as their equal-and-opposite names suggest); but if all happy families are alike, so are all families whose sons break down when they discover that Dad is not a hero after all but just someone struggling to get by. The stories seem to be about the rise and fall of the father, but they’re just as much about the coming of age of the son—learning not to worship or reject but just to accept.

The men who surround Troy—his feckless elder son Lyons (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II), his best friend Jim Bono (Martel Manning), and his brother Gabriel (Manny Buckley, in a performance of remarkable delicacy and power)—give the production its verisimilitude while maintaining its almost mythic account of humankind battling with the impenetrable gods. As I say: SEE THIS PLAY.

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