All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Troy Maxon knows a lot about fences. As a baseball player, he swung for them, successfully, hitting more than his share of home runs for the Pittsburgh Grays of the Negro League in the years just before Jackie Robinson obliterated the Major Leagues’ color line. In his yard, Troy continues to have a ball tethered to a tree and a bat handy to release tension or relieve boredom when either strikes.
As a convict in his youth, he was lodged behind them, doing time for robberies which began like Jean Valjean’s, to get food for his family, but which became more and more routine and violent as Troy settled into being a criminal.
As a family man and home owner, he is in the long process of building one around the perimeter of his property, at his wife’s request. She likes the neatness and respectability of it.
Troy works at this fence throughout the running time of August Wilson’s play, “Fences,” a candidate along with “Seven Guitars” for the best of the 10 plays the author wrote to chronicle the history of black people in the United States in the 20th century, decade by decade, a play representing each decade.
“Fences” take place in the late 1950s, and by the time we meet Troy, his life spans the 20th century so far. He has seen horse and buggies turn to motor cars, experienced ice boxes becoming refrigerators, watched the industrial revolution and municipal policy offer more opportunity for blacks to become middle class, and witnessed the dawn of civil rights.
His life has made Troy a hard man. He can laugh with his buddy, Bono, who he met in prison and who now works with him as a rubbish hauler for the Pittsburgh sanitation department. He can show love and affection to his wife, Rose, who accepts Troy as he is and provides stability and reason to his life as she returns his regard. He can be charitable to his addled brother, Gabe, who was injured in World War II and lives with permanent damage from the sections of his brain he lost and the metal plate that serves for half of his cranium. He can even lark a little with his older son, Lyons, whose formative years Troy missed because of being in jail.
His younger son, his son with Rose, is a different story. For this son, Troy has developed standards and an attitude of distance. He is more a drill sergeant than a father, a bully who puts his decisions, logical or not, above the boy’s wishes and ambitions.
Troy also fights battles at work, good ones but some that threaten his position with the sanitation company. And he has a view of manhood that does not necessarily include marital fidelity in spite of being aware of how much Rose does for him and means to him.
Troy is the king in his castle and will brook no argument to the contrary. His word must be law. Beyond handing his weekly pay to Rose on Friday, Troy is bound by nothing. Except, of course, the metaphorical fences he builds to keep most of those closest to him at a distance.
These fences take the form of temper, of an argumentative disposition, and of a sternness that combines with a stubborn streak that Troy construes as strength but which are really barriers, most of a defensive nature. Rose won’t always put up with it. Bono laughs it away. Lyons can take or leave his Dad except for needing occasional loans from him, loans he always pays back. Gabe just asks Troy not to be mad at him, which Troy isn’t. Gabe may be the only one to whom Troy shows genuine sympathy, to a point.
The victims of Troy’s inner wall are Cory, the younger son, and Troy himself. Troy wants Cory to fulfill some of the accomplishments he was born too early, too poor, or too underequipped to bring to fruition. He resents Cory favoring football, which he plays at his school, over baseball and of Cory choosing anything over working for his spending money and advancing academically. Any time Cory makes an independent or undiscussed move, Troy is there to scotch it and to upbraid his son for having the temerity to act on his own.
Troy is at war with himself but he saves his major battles for sparring with Cory who asks his father why he doesn’t like him and why nothing he says is given any heed. In time, Troy’s fences become thicker and sturdier until he alienates most of the people around him and lives his final days in virtual isolation .
Troy harbors a lot of resentment. Wilson gives reason for how Troy’s armor was formed. The 50s may not have been a golden age for black Americans, but next to the teens and ’20s, when Troy was coming of age, they seemed like a vast improvement. In the South, and in Pittsburgh, it was hard for a young black man to get a foothold. Jobs were denied. Food or shelter could be withheld by a store or property owner, even when ready money was available. Troy’s father, who sired 11 children, was colder and meaner than Troy. Most of the amenities to which Troy’s sons have access were unknown in his early years. Robbery became the solution to having enough to provide for his first wife and Lyons. Jail was the result, but in jail, Troy learned two valuable things, his talent for baseball and that he never wanted to be held captive again.
Alas, he was also too early for baseball. Troy would be age 43 when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He might hit 37 or 42 home run per season for the Grays, and he may receive acclaim from his peers, but when the opportunity came for black ball players, Troy watched guys 20 years younger such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron win the accolades that might, 10 years earlier, have been his. He keeps comparing his stats to those of the Yankees rightfielder from his playing days.
Much festers in the man. When we meet him at age 53, he is a steady worker, a bill-paying home owner, and a good, solid provider in a middle class black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. With Gabe’s help, he has a house with no mortgage, and the Maxons have no problems buying food, clothing, or the niceties they need.
While the histories of the gentle Bono, the jazz musician Lyons, and the wounded veteran, Gabe, add to Wilson’s overall picture of 20th century black life, it is Troy and his anger, Troy and the barriers that keep him in and others out, that matter in “Fences.” Troy’s strong points and better nature shine through on numerous occasions, but the tough edge and need to be the alpha in all situations never subsides. Even when Troy is right or has some justification on his side, he can’t help but go a little further than reason would dictate. Here is a solid, capable man brought down by putting everything at practical, dollars and sense, hard-hearted level when he could have thrived if he just let down his guard a little. Only with Gabe does he seem to bend a tad. Rose, whom he loves, has to outsmart or outtalk him for the concessions she gets. Lyons doesn’t care if his father roars at him. Cory is given no ground.
“Fences” is powerful to enact. As in most Wilson plays, conversations can go in several directions, and certain folk phrases or aphorisms get repeated ad nauseam, but at the crux of “Fences” is the complete portrait of a complex man who has adopted a stance and uses it to control the bat he wields, a bat that sends even those who love him most heading for the fences.
Troy represents a lot of men of his time, black or other races. He is a child of the Depression, a child of abuse, and a child of neglect, a boy told to be a man, ready or not, who by necessity became a man in prison and never knew softness or ease. His insistence on being the authority, on referring to everything as his house, his food, his pay that goes for clothing, etc. describes the attitude of many men in the middle of the last century. In his mind, he defined what a man or a father should be, and he was determined to live up his that image no matter what the cost to him or those around him. The stance is everything.
Phylicia Rashad’s production of “Fences” at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre makes all of this abundantly clear. As Esau Pritchett plays Troy, you see no hint of compromise or even cooperation in the man. He is as rigid as the lumber he marks off for Cory or Bono to saw and bevel, as firm as the bat he swings at the baseball tied to the tree in his yard.
Though his unmovable posture is consistent, Pritchett realistically shows every facet of Troy Maxon. You see the challenge in his eye when he’s crossed. You sense that he welcomes the defiance or comeuppance he might receive at work for lodging a complaint on racial grounds. Pritchett’s Troy likes things running smooth but on his terms. If there is to be a fight, Pritchett will show you how Troy spoils for it, how he is more willing to have chaos come than to avoid it. Everything is an outside curve he has see, catch up to, and smack.
Nuanced though it, Pritchett’s performance holds one basic line for most of Rashad’s production. He captures the traits of Troy but not always his depth. The evenness of his acting pays dividends, though, in the scene where circumstances finally overwhelm Troy, who, in many ways wanted and strived for the best. Pritchett’s breakdown scenes may be stronger and more moving because of the consistency of character he displayed through most of the play
Rose, played by Portia, an actress who once upon a time also used a last name, is like “Raisin in the Sun’s” Ruth Younger, a woman who realizes life will not be easy or peaceful with her husband but knows she has found and married a basically good man and is willing to hold her tongue and swallow her pride at times.
That doesn’t mean Rose is a pushover. She will answer back and trump an argument if she deems if necessary to combat Troy. She is not beyond giving her husband a poke to motivate him or some advice on how to get along better with his children, one of whom is hers, and the other of whom Portia makes it clear Rose likes.
Portia offers more emotional fire throughout “Fences.” Her big scene is a classic, and Portia gives it dramatic steam, but she has been percolating her outburst for years, holding back more than she says even when it looks as if she’s scolding or correcting Troy. You can see Portia’s Rose deciding when to let loose and when to keep what she’s thinking inside, half knowing she holds the cards and prevail in the end.
Rose’s last straw with Troy, the incident that leads to her barraging with the pain of 18 years of marriage, is one that would affect most women, particularly in the ’50s’ Rose believed that for all the problems between her husband and son, her life was relatively secure and stable. Portia endows Rose with unbreakable tensile strength once her breaking point is reached. She does not break entirely, but she lets Troy know everything will be on her terms.
Jared McNeill and G. Alverez Reid give detailed, realistic performances as Lyons and Gabe.
Reid has the more difficult part. He must convey the traits, the signs of mental diminishment and eccentricity that make people in the Maxons’ neighborhood complain about him and fear him while showing how harmless and helpless Gabe is. Never does Reid go too far in any direction. He keeps Gabe loveable by showing his vulnerability and demonstrating that even when Gabe gets agitated or angry, by taunts or religious provocation for instance, he is no threat to society or to himself. Rose is particularly protective of Gabe and makes sure he eats and stays clean. Gabe and Lyons also have a special relationship, and one never gets tired of hearing Gabe greet his nephew in a way he’s patented over time.
McNeill is a wonder. He shows no signs of acting. His Lyons is as natural and at home as if he really was a guy who happened to be in his Dad’s Pittsburgh neighborhood on convenient paydays. McNeill exudes the musician Lyons is, as well as the guy who survives but doesn’t need much to do it and takes a lot in his stride. Lyons also has the comfort of good woman, his wife, a nurse, who remains unseen although Rose is always telling Lyons she wants to see her.
Also nonchalant and authentic in approach is Phil McGlaston as Bono, a close friend of Troy’s for more than 30 years. Assuming Bono ever had a mean streak, McGlaston doesn’t play him having one. Bono is a contrast to Troy, a man who had his youthful flirtation with the dangerous and wild and chooses the quieter, more settled life of working and relaxing. If anyone can reason with Troy, Bono has the best shot, but Troy cannot help driving a wedge in their friendship.
Chris Myers is small in stature, at first appearance too small to look like a high school football player with prospects or any one who would dare stand up to Troy. When the moment comes when he must, Myers’s Cory uses a fierce football move to establish his ground and back his father away.
Myers is sympathetic as Cory, but he need more moods. His expression throughout the play stayed uniformly glum. His face was always hangdog, his lips in a pout, and his eyes in a squint. I can see Cory having a sad expression, but this is a young man who can make independent choices and has the respect of people at this school and in his neighborhood.
Daunted though Cory is by Troy, Myers has to give his character more resolve and strength. He needs to watch Portia as Rose and mirror some of her looks.
Phylicia Rashad, who originated a major part in Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” is a careful, concise director. Her “Fences” played neatly and gave each character and scene the breathing room to make its points and register with the McCarter audience.
The play flowed well and had an effect but needed a scooch more intensity. Watching “Fences,” I felt the importance of Wilson’s play but not the magnitude. Only in Troy and Rose’s big scenes did the staging grab me and keep me riveted. I felt as if the dense atmosphere that should be palpable during “Fences” was saved for use at special moments. I would like a more compelling level of involvement throughout the production.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not disappointed or unsatisfied in any way. “Fences,” like “Death of a Salesman” or “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a show that should have constant productions and revivals. You will see what August Wilson was about and be moved by Pritchett, Portia, and their castmates by Rashad’s production of “Fences.”
Speaking of castmates, Taylor Dior is adorably splendid in a second-act role and Lyons and Cory’s sister.
John Iacovelli created a wonderfully realistic set that gives the audience a chance to see life in the Maxon home, especially as Rose keeps everyone fed, though the main playing are is the family’s backyard, and the house interior is only visible through windows. ESOSA’s costumes were right for the time and character. John Gromada’s sound design set the tone for the pace and power of Wilson’s play.
“Fences” runs through Sunday, February 16, in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre, on University Place near College Avenue, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. No show is scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday, Feb. 11 to 13. Tickets range from $87.50 to $20 and can be ordered by calling 609-258-2787 or going online to http://www.mccarter.org.