Sometimes you just get in your own way.
Dragging my heels on Fences at Everyman due to a horrible cold and my dogged belief it is not my favorite August Wilson play—Pulitzer Prize and love for the playwright notwithstanding. Turns out, it’s not the play. I had never seen a production of Fences that did not amount to much more than a blitzkrieg of hollering, grandstanding and bullying by the main character, ex-Negro Leagues baseball player and ex-con Troy Maxson (Alan Bomar Jones).
That was before Everyman’s majestic production, which brings Wilson’s words to life the way they were meant to–with passion, conviction, earthy humor and marrow-deep emotion. Director Clinton Turner Davis and an exceptional cast turn what I always brushed off as a character study of a bitter womanizer who hammers away at his family and friends the same way he pounds nails into the backyard fence he’s building for his wife into something at once epic and intimate.
This warm, embracing production draws you into Wilson’s distinctive riffing conversations and grand speeches as if you’ve been invited onto the Maxson’s back porch in late 1950s Pittsburgh to pull up a chair and sit awhile.
The whole play takes place in this yard and set designer James Fouchard’s specificity on the dusty red brick façade, tumbledown porch, half-dead tree and dirt yard tell you everything you need to know about Troy’s sense of ownership. This is his hardscrabble kingdom, where he blows off steam with a payday pint of gin, jawing with his go-along, get-along, truth-telling friend Bono (an easygoing but definite Jason B. McIntosh), listening to baseball games on the radio, and canoodling with his wife Rose (Joy Jones, radiant as the dutiful, house-proud wife).
The shooting the breeze quality of the early scenes in Fences is leavened by Troy’s mulish relationship with his youngest son Cory (a spirited and stubborn Brayden Simpson), who wants to play high school football and go on to college. Needless to say, Troy has other ideas and you’re not sure if they are borne out of jealousy for his son’s talent or the realities of being a black man in 1957 America—probably a little of both.
Troy is also vexed by his older son Lyons (Gary-Kayi Fletcher, effective as a career n’er do well), a smooth operator and musician always looking for a handout, as well as his mentally-troubled brother Gabriel (Bryant Bentley, shattering as a shamanic figure), who endured a brain injury during WWII and now roams the neighborhood, battered horn in hand, wrestling with unseen demons and angels.
Wilson’s jazz-fueled poetry captures working class people living for the weekend with the richness of a Romare Bearden painting—all movement and color and keen detail. This richness is very much present in Everyman’s production, with director Davis heightening both the naturalness and larger-than-life aspects of the play.
Fences is about lost chances and hard done-by people, certainly, but it is also about a crushing sense of responsibility for your family and what it means to be a man. It is about heroism and cowardice in ordinary life, routine racism, and the importance of counting, being worth something. Being worth anything.
The play also speaks across generations, as the elders struggle to give their children everything they’ve got and never had, and the younger generation works to forge their own identity while trying to fill mighty big shoes.
And no one casts a larger shadow than Troy Maxson. He’s a trash collector who demands to drive the truck, just like the white employees do. He’s fought for everything he has—his family, his old brick house, his baseball career, and his mode of surviving as a younger man that landed him in prison.
Troy’s a big man who throws his weight around with the grandeur of a former athlete. A baseball bat rests easily in his hands and that bat can either be a plaything or a deadly weapon depending when Troy starts swinging.
October 21 – November 22, 2015
315 West Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $40 – $60
Details and Tickets
But for all his tale-spinning—and Troy is an incorrigible storyteller—and gruff oratory, Alan Bomar Jones’ nuanced performance lets you see how Troy is trapped. Trapped by his temper, his bitterness, his needs, the unfairness of life, an abusive father. When he talks about the last beating his father gave him before he left home at 14 to make his way into the world, you shiver at the plainspoken cruelty of his words as he describes how this incident hardened him into the man he is today.
In a play loaded with men’s talk, which ebbs and flows as naturally as a river, you are struck in this staging by the fierce beauty of the speeches he gives women. Wilson’s plays seem masculine and concerned with man business, but it’s plain to see he loved women. You only have to hear Rose’s reaction to Troy’s confession—she’s angry, mournful, shocked and proud—and the way she tells Cory the truth about his father with great love and brutal honesty for evidence of that.
Troy is a big man struggling in a small universe of his own making. He’s Willy Loman riding a trash truck—cowed by providing for his family, both loyal and flawed. There are thousands of Troys out there, just as there were Willy Lomans—knowing nothing but hard work and trying.
In the end, it is the damaged Gabriel who gives Troy his due. When his brass horn proves ineffectual, Gabriel unleashes an unearthly cry to heaven. Attention must be paid, as we imagine Troy Maxson swinging his way into heaven.
Fences by August Wilson. Directed by Clinton Turner Davis. Featuring Jason B. McIntosh, Alan Bomar Jones, Joy Jones, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Bryant Bentley, Brayden Simpson, Gabrielle Nance. Set Design: James Fouchard. Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler. Costume Design: David Burdick. Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop. Stage Manager: Cat Wallis. Produced by Everyman Theatre. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.