Very Good Fences
August Wilson’s tale of love, regret and family reaches universal themes through an utterly specific story
South Coast Repertory has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the theater world’s great foundries of new plays. But that is only part of the theater’s allegiance to plays that focus on language. From Shakespeare and Molière to Amy Freed and Richard Greenberg, SCR’s favorite voices are those that express themselves in distinct and usually highly erudite voices.
Yet the overwhelming majority of the theater’s hundreds of plays have featured white characters delivering words written by white writers. And while the color of those characters’ skin might be recognizable to SCR’s mostly white audiences, the tenor of their language, while sounding awful purty, doesn’t always strike a recognizable chord among those people whose social circle doesn’t resemble Gore Vidal’s.
Which is why August Wilson’s Fences—though it’s set in 1956 and features a cast of mostly uneducated, working-class black characters living in Pittsburgh—actually feels more recognizable than many of the company’s plays. Because, for once, the poetry of these characters isn’t conveyed in composition-class-perfect English, but rather in real, colloquial American English. And that helps turn this production into a sublimely affecting piece of theater.
Wilson was a towering figure in American drama the last 20 years of his life before suddenly dying of inoperable liver cancer in 2005. He won two Pulitzer Prizes and was the darling of academics, critics and audiences. His theatrical oeuvre, which consists of a 10-play cycle in which he documented the collective history of the African-American experience in the 20th Century through very intimate, personal plays, was perhaps the most ambitious work by any prominent writer this side of Shakespeare’s ridiculously biased histories.
As with the rest of the cycle, the plot of Fences, the sixth in the chronology, is secondary to character and story is mostly subordinate to stories, and everything hinges on the best-honed weapon in Wilson’s arsenal: his amazing ability to capture the rhythm and patois of the everyday speech in the neighborhood he grew up in.
There’s also more than a touch of the poet to Wilson; while his characters are often coarse and vulgar, they are also capable of a kind of eloquence and precision of language that doesn’t sound affected or manufactured as much as naturally pure.
Fences is less about a family than it is about one man and his family. Troy (Charlie Robinson, whose face you will undoubtedly recognize and performance you won’t forget), a Pittsburgh garbage collector in his early 50s, labors under the economic and psychic cost of a dream deferred—his inability to make it as a Major League baseball player. Troy’s longtime pal, Bono, says the only people who could hit a ball farther than Troy were Josh Gibson and Babe Ruth. But he never got the chance, something he blames on the crackers-that-be—but which his wife, Rose, attributes to Troy being on the wrong side of 40 when Jackie Robinson broke into the National League.
Though he lives with the reminder that he never got a fair chance at his true calling in life, Troy doesn’t seem to be wallowing in misery. He’s cocksure, tells a mean story and seems full of joy, perfectly content with Rose and his humble, if honest, work.
But, of course, he’s got a lot more going on. Like savagely unresolved issues with his long-gone father that he threatens to revisit upon his own sons. And the fact that, though ostensibly happy after 18 years of marriage, he’s starting to get a wandering eye.
Other characters include Troy’s two sons: Lyons, a dapper-dressing jazz musician possessed of more show than dough, and Cory, a high-school football star whose dreams of playing college ball aren’t necessarily shared by his father, who fears his son will be dicked over by the white man just as he was.
Then there’s the play’s most fascinating character: Gabe. Though he exhibits all the characteristics of schizophrenia, Troy explains his brother’s addled state as a product of a metal plate he has carried in his head since suffering a combat injury in World War II. Whatever the case, Gabe is slow and sweet-natured but also capable of experiencing terrible hallucinations and communing with St. Peter. Characters like this are often quagmires. In Tropic Thunder parlance, the risk any time actors are asked to convey a character with a mental impairment is that they will go “full retard” and become unbelievable. But Baron Kelly’s magnificently humane rendering of Gabe turns him into a compelling figure.
Compelling is also a good description for director Seret Scott’s production, which rarely skips a beat, from the uniformly strong performances (with Kelly’s and Robinson’s leading the way) to Shaun Motley’s impeccable set design and Peter Maradudin’s mood-enhancing light design. It’s a pitch-perfect production of a play whose crowning achievement is turning the everyday language of a particular time, place, race and class into a stirring commentary on the American family and America itself, shortly before the winds of change of the following decade unraveled the fabric of each—threads that remain loose to this day.
Fences at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 21. $20-$70.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???