APT's Affecting Production of "Fences" Brings an American Classic to LIfe
There are many emotionally wrenching moments in American Players Theatre’s excellent production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning Fences, the story of a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh struggling toward, and failing to achieve their version of the American Dream. The uniformly impressive cast, led by David Alan Anderson and Karen Aldridge, brings passion, love and misery to this American classic in equal measure.
And director Ron OJ Parson has an obvious affinity for Wilson’s distinctive storytelling; he has directed or acted in 30 productions, approaching some works, like Fences, multiple times. In his director’s notes, Parson commented that he was most interested in finding the love in this script, which also includes acres of pain, estrangement, resentment, regret and even cruelty that the main character, Troy Maxson, inflicts on friends and family members.
There is certainly love between the world-weary and stubborn Troy (Anderson) and his sidekick Mr. Bono (Bryant Louis Bentley), apparent from the opening scene. Co-workers with the city’s sanitation department, the two sit in the back yard and pass a bottle of gin back and forth, celebrating payday and the end of another long week. The reserved and meditative Bono provides a fine foil for his friend’s constant patter of fictionalized personal narrative and his well-deep laughter, often at his own jokes.
There is also plenty of playful affection between the braggadocious Troy and his wife of 16 years, the kind and mothering Rose (Aldridge), who fends off his flirtatious pinches while consistently pulling her husband back to reality when he has strayed too far into his world of tall tales. As a main caregiver for his army veteran brother, Gabriel (a luminous Gavin Lawrence), who sustained a traumatic brain injury in World War I, Troy feels the pull of familial love compounded with a weighty responsibility. This same push and pull of love and duty colors his stormy relationships with his sons, Cory (Yao Dogbe) a simmering, rebellious, rising high school football star, and Lyons (Jamal James) a chill 30-something who is trying to make a living playing in jazz clubs.
Fortunately, these foundational connections are apparent before they are overwhelmed by Troy’s anger, disappointment and guilt. Anderson is frighteningly effective at channeling the energy of the play’s early scenes into bitterness, as Troy lashes out at everyone he loves, frustrated by crippling institutional racism, missed opportunities and his own shortcomings. What’s missing from this production, however, is the anti-hero’s fall — his recognition that his failures have cost him everything. While the rest of the cast navigates full and difficult journeys with their characters, Troy’s is cut short, leaving the audience ambivalent about Troy’s end.
Another problematic element of the production is its awkward placement on APT’s outdoor stage. The extremely wide playing space, with aisles that stretch into the audience and many different stair steps, platforms and levels, is largely unutilized. The action is confined almost exclusively to center stage, all on the “ground” level. And while a collection of disconnected windows hanging above and beside the Maxson house is supposed to indicate a cramped, urban neighborhood of small properties and smaller yards, it only makes the single house onstage look more isolated and alone.
Similarly, when construction of the titular fence begins, Bono explains, “Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in,” and that self-imposed perimeter is key to the second half of the play. But in Shaun Motley’s scenic design, the fence posts only line the back wall of the stage, literally fading into the background. Visually this erases much of the fence’s symbolic power.
Fences is the second production Parson has directed at APT and the first show he’s ever mounted on an outdoor stage. Like Troy swinging his baseball bat relentlessly at a practice ball, one hopes the director takes another swing at American Players Theatre’s uniquely challenging stage.