All Things Entertaining and Cultural
August Wilson’s finest play, “Fences,” is set in the 1950s, one of the more fertile and groundbreaking decades of American theater. Kamilah Forbes’s production of “Fences” for People’s Light & Theatre Company would fit among the works destined to be classics from that period. Her superb staging gives Wilson, writing in the 80s, stature with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, William Inge, and Lillian Hellman. I cannot imagine a better rendition of this play. Everything about Forbes’s production is perfect, from the monumental performance of Michael Genet as the complex Troy Maxon to the soaring turn by People’s Light veteran Melanye Finister as Troy’s wife, Rose, and a collection of supporting efforts that make Forbes’s “Fences” into an absorbing slice of life that has all of the variety of existence itself.
Genet and Finister work in symbiotic counterpoint, the large, all-encompassing Troy being kept down to earth by the watchful and gently moderating Rose, who tempers Troy’s more extreme notions with a combination of humor and stern resolve.
Both Genet and Finister are so human in their behavior and reactions. There is no way to categorize them as characters or as people. They make Troy and Rose so complete, you see a remarkable panoply of moods and emotions alongside a full range of intentions and concrete actions.
Forbes has brought animated, pulsating life to the People’s Light stage. She has populated the Maxons’ Pittsburgh backyard with infinitely dimensional people who present Wilson’s engrossing story while showing the myriad traits of mankind at their meanest and most noble.
Genet and Finister are joined by a uniformly excellent cast, none of whom misses a beat or fails to get the most out of his or her character — Brian Anthony Williams, Wendell Franklin, Ruffin Prentiss, young Cameron Hicks, and the outstanding G. Alverez Reid, even better at People’s Light as Troy’s brain-addled brother, Gabe, than he was in the same role at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre last season. They perform on a wonderful James F. Pyne, Jr. set that shows the wear of the Maxon house but also relates how lived-in and how active the family home is. Pyne accents the condition of the Maxon property by placing next to a similar structure that is abandoned and boarded up, as if destroyed in a fire. Even Rose’s kitchen, seen in full through windows, conveys the sense of a busy, constantly-in-use home.
Michael Genet is magnificent as Troy Maxon. While generally presenting Wilson’s character as a confident man with a quick mind and knack for being sociable and even teasing with Rose, Genet lets you see how Troy’s affability and humor can lead to stubbornness, cantankerous badgering, firm strictness, flights of folly, and serious, fearsome temperament.
Genet doesn’t favor any of Troy’s aspects. He shows him as a man who faces his responsibilities but who has enough lightness to josh with his long-time friend, Bono, spar with his older son, Lyons, kid around, at times suggestively, with Rose, and become overbearing with his younger son, Cory. Genet doesn’t hide or hold back anything. He doesn’t hint that the joking, chatty Troy can have a mean and self-destructive side. He plays an entire man, one who like all men, has different moods and even conflicting personalities. His Troy illustrates what George Bernard Shaw means when he says men and women don’t have their virtues and vices in neat little sets but have many facets, any of which can show at any moment.
The grace of Genet’s performance is you believe every side of Troy the actor exposes. A change in mood or in fortune may have a dramatic impact, but they never seem like a contradiction because Genet handles all so thoroughly and fluidly. His Troy is less mercurial than a man of many aspects.
Genet’s range as Troy makes him an almost tragic figure, one who has so much to offer and who has accomplished so much in spite of a 15-year jail term that took away his youth, but who cannot control certain cravings or demons and whose behavior, not ever so extreme as to warrant a return to prison, leads to his downfall and estranges him from his greatest asset, his family.
Genet’s Troy does not seem bound by the fences that symbolically enclose the character. He says his time locked up took all notion of robbery from him, and his marriage to Rose civilized him completely. Genet’s Troy is a man who revels in freedom and enjoys the liberty to say what he pleases, act as he chooses, and be a force both in his home and at the Pittsburgh sanitation department, where he goes from rubbish hauler to driver after he complains that no black (or Negro, as Troy would say in 1957) is behind the wheel of a truck.
Troy is man of tremendous power and personality. He has cause for bitterness but, to Genet’s credit, he gives into it in doses. It does not affect his every waking moments, as it has in some productions of “Fences.” You see the man’s playfulness when he comes home on a Friday, hands Rose his pay, and has an end-of-the-week bottle of gin with Bono, a friend he met in prison and who has reformed and become domesticated along with Troy.
You hear about Troy’s strength before you see. Genet is a sturdy, well-built man, but he is not the stalwart hunk that usually gets cast as Troy. (Brian Anthony Williams, who plays Bono at People’s Light, is more the type that usually garners the lead in “Fences.”) He is tough, but his power is brought to light by conversation about the mighty home runs Troy hit while playing for the Homestead Grays in the 1930s, when Troy was in his thirties.
Conversation and anecdote is a key to every Wilson play. Characters constantly reminisce and tell stories that illuminate a situation or a character. In Forbes’s production, that conversation is conducted with animation and is quite entertaining. You never find yourself hoping someone will hurry through a tale. You can’t wait to hear what someone will say next.
In creating such an all-embracing character, Wilson had to delineate some vices and virtues. Genet may not accentuate Troy’s bitterness, at not getting a chance to play in the Major Leagues or at wasting time in prison or in not being an authority figure where he works, but it lies under the surface and informs his more defeating actions.
You first see Troy’s hard and petty side in scenes that involve his sons.
The older son, Lyons, well played by Wendell Franklin, gives his father reason for disdain. Although it is half treated as a joke, Troy notes that Lyons only moseys by on his payday and usually wants a $10 loan. Lyons, who lived his formative years while Troy was in jail, isn’t interested in stability or responsibility like his father’s. Being black, he cannot find a job to his liking and earns whatever he can as a musician in Pittsburgh clubs.
Troy messes with Lyons until Rose sternly tells him to give his son the tenner. You can see some measure of respect from Franklin as Lyons, and a modicum of love from Troy, happy on some level to have a relationship with a grown who can write him off as an absentee father and ignore him.
Rose helps. She has a liking for Lyons and some empathy with his wife, Bonnie, who works at a hospital to support Lyons’s household.
Troy’s relationship with his younger son, Cory, is the factor that puts Troy in the worst light. It is also the hardest aspect to reconcile with Genet’s performance because his Troy seems to be flexible and tolerant, while playing at being strict, with every other character. The actor helps Troy’s transition from congeniality to harsh toughness by changing his expression whenever the excellent Ruffin Prentiss enters as Cory.
Cory can do nothing to satisfy his father, who treats him as if he’s a laborer and reminds him he provides the high school student’s shelter, clothes, and sustenance because it’s his responsibility and not because he likes the boy.
Troy doesn’t seem to muster any warmth towards Cory. He stiffens when his son comes into view. He is always disciplining the lad and imposing his will on him without listening to, let alone considering, the boy’s desires or ambitions.
The feelings are mutual. Cory makes attempts to mollify or engage his father, but they are fruitless. Troy seems to regards his son as person over whom he has supreme power, and who must bow to his will, whatever it is. Throwbacks to his boyhood and the father who forced him to fend for himself when was age 14 affect Troy’s attitude towards Cory, a distance even Rose cannot bridge.
Ruffin Prentiss is a great foil to Genet’s Troy. Although a football player and a teen who obviously likes getting together with friends, Cory seems delicate and sensitive around Troy. He makes a show of bravado, but his fear of his father outweighs any courage he can muster in his presence. Prentiss adroitly shows the mixed emotions Cory has, mixed on several levels. He wants to, but can’t summon the strength to, defy his father. He also wants to receive affection from his father, affection Troy seems determined to withhold in the way he was denied his father’s regard.
Cory finds it difficult to be independent of Troy. The consequences, physical and emotional, of disobeying, are too great.
Prentiss has a soldierly bearing as Cory. He looks like a teen and has a teen’s wiriness, but the actor also gives his character a strong core. He presents as someone who will endure anything to get the love he craves, but who will bolt when things go too far.
Rose is helpless in this conflict between her husband and son. She can intervene and soften things for Lyons, the offspring of another woman. She will be a terrific mother to Raynell, Troy’s daughter out of wedlock. But she can’t fend for her own. He can try to make things up to Cory by motherly care, but the coldness between Troy and his middle child is something no one can conquer. Except possibly for Troy, who digs in his heels when he senses the slightest semblance of softening towards Cory.
Melanye Finister is an icon of American womanhood and motherhood as Rose. She is the earth mother who knows when to temper her natural affection and generosity with strictness, and she is woman who has retained her appeal into middle age and enjoys her intimate evenings with her husband.
Rose is the picture of common sense and decency. She runs her house wonderfully on Troy’s pay, and she is always ready to help Lyons and Gabe, neither of whom seem to eat regularly, to a meal.
Eighteen years of marriage have taught Rose how to deal with Troy. She loves that he has a strong streak of the ornery in him. You see her admiration for Troy’s leadership and sense of independence.
She also loves that Troy understands her maternal instincts and that he is willing to succumb to her more sensitive, sensible ideas when it comes to how to treat people or regard a specific situation.
Rose is a wonder of a woman, one of a kind, and she appreciates that she has a husband who has the personal fortitude and basic decency she has.
Rose talks of how she saw Troy at a Pittsburgh café and decided on sight that he would be a man she could lay next to and make beautiful babies. The abused Cory is their only child together, but the strength, character, and variety Rose saw in Troy last until he spoils with two acts, one Rose could live with, the other foolish and unnecessary.
Finister impresses as the calm, wise Rose who is not beyond springing a zinger or two on Troy when he taunts her. She touches every nerve and feeling in your body when she takes Troy to task for the one action she cannot understand or allow her dignity to excuse.
No heart is safe from breaking when Rose lets loose with her questioning as to why Troy cannot turn to her for all of his needs as a man — practical, spiritual, and physical. We know her litany about how fine a wife she’s been and her devotion to Troy and her family is honest and heartfelt. We share Rose’s pain as well as her anger and resentment that Troy could so carelessly disregard the most precious person and relationship in his life.
Rose spares nothing as she talks about her life and the partnership — no, the marriage — she’s formed with Troy. She proves she can read her husband like a book and that she’s learned to overlook flaws she knows are engrained but cannot be changed. You hear a woman commenting emotionally, yet wisely, on every aspect of life, and you are moved beyond normal affection.
Finister rivets you. She doesn’t grant you the chance or inclination to ignore what Rose has to say nor the vehemence and conviction with which she is moved to say it.
Rose is a woman who has kept silent a lot. For all she notices, and for all she speaks, she has retained much of her critical perception of Troy inside for she alone to think about and consider. Once circumstances cause Rose to unleash her feelings and passions, Finister makes her an unstoppable force. Troy may be able to physically overcome Rose. He tries to do it before Cory intervenes. He cannot surmount the spiritual wound she gives him once she speaks her mind unedited and without mercy.
Genet’s performance shows the range of a complex man. Finister’s galvanizes by compacting the feelings of a woman who would be content to be simple in lifestyle and in marriage into a series of ferocious speeches that show her mettle as a human. She is a woman with a rock-rib core who is happily willing to bed but is to be feared when she is pushed to breaking.
Wendell Franklin could have walked off the street as Lyons. He’s that natural.
Lyons, age 34, is a man who is not ready to accept his expected lot the way Troy can. He is a man about town, decent in his way but not averse to gambling or helping himself when something is left in the open. Franklin plays him as being competent and decent while revealing the streak in Lyons that scoffs at caution and enjoys life on the scuffle.
Gabriel was injured in World War II and lost segments of his brain. A plate covers the gray matter that remains. His disability has made Gabe childlike and given to see demons he calls hellhounds. He is a neighborhood eccentric, harmless yet frightening to some people who call the police on him, leaving Troy to be fleeced by cops and judges to guarantee Gabe’s freedom.
Reid is loveable in the part. You enjoy it when he goes through a routine of saying, “Lyons, king of the jungle, when he sees his nephew. He makes you sympathetic towards him when he pouts and says Troy is “mad” at him because he left Troy and Rose’s house to live more independently at a boarding home.
You want to take care of Gabriel as much as Rose does, and you feel deeply for him in a late scene in which he can’t accomplish something it is so important for him to do.
Brian Anthony Wilson is perfect as Bono, a buddy who knows each of Troy’s faults but is a faithful companion. Wilson adds to the easy feeling of the opening scenes with his boisterous jolliness and aces a serious sequence in which he has to confront Troy on a critical matter. At some point, Wilson makes Bono the model of the man you wish Troy could be.
Cameron Hicks is sweetly adorable as Raynell. She is shrewd about the way she tries to get around her mother and is both mischievous and flirtatious when she meets Cory for the first time.
Kamilah Forbes is to be congratulation for a magnificent achievement. Her production of “Fences” flows like natural time. Her cast finds every nuance, and she coaches Michael Genet and Melanye Finister to performances that will be crowns of their career.
I think the secret to Forbes’s success is the leeway she gave Genet to be broadly expansive as Troy and the comfortable pace at which she let Wilson’s revelatory chatter tell Troy and Rose’s stories. You never got tired of what anyone had to say, and all fit in so well to create a complete and informative picture. All August Wilson packed into “Fences” registers in a moving, interesting way. Forbes found ways to make every facet of the play and its characters apparent and important.
What a wonderful way for People’s Light to begin its 40th anniversary season!
“Fences” runs through Sunday, October 5 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performances are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept, 23 and 24. Tickets range from $47 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org.