Theater Review: A fine Fences at American Stage

Fences is a character study of a flawed man whose defects aren’t entirely of his own making. Troy Maxson is an African-American garbage collector who spent 15 years in jail for killing a man in a robbery, who afterwards became a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, and who then married a good woman with whom he settled down to raise a family.

But he’s also a tyrant and a philanderer, a man who doesn’t love his needy son, and who takes on a mistress with whom he has another child.

As one expects in an August Wilson play, society’s culpability in creating such a person is not to be ignored. Wilson makes it clear enough that Maxson’s stifling of his son’s opportunity to play college football is a result of the bitterness he still feels toward white team owners who wouldn’t let him into the major leagues (in the pre-Jackie Robinson days). And he has Maxson himself attempt to explain to his incensed wife Rose that he took a lover because after 18 years “on first base” he desperately needed an experience that could convince him he’d made some sort of personal progress.

Wilson in several of his plays examines the perversions that occur to characters who are prevented from fully expressing their talents, and Troy Maxson is one of these: a gifted, charismatic man to whom white American society has offered next to nothing. As Langston Hughes famously said, a dream deferred can fester or stink — or explode.

In the fine American Stage production of Fences, Maxson, wonderfully played by Evander Duck, Jr. (above, center, with Travus Leroux and Jayne Trinette), is already poisoned by deferred dreams when we first meet him. But we don’t notice at first — instead what we see is a high-spirited man who enjoys joking with his best friend Bono, or making ostentatious sexual advances on wife Rose, or teasing his elder son Lyons for always asking him for cash. Maxson is also an inveterate raconteur, and in his stories about coming face to face with death, there’s something more than vain boasting — something spookily convincing. If you watch act two carefully, you’ll even see that a deal Maxson makes with death actually comes to fruition — though I can’t explain more lest I spoil the effect. Suffice it to say that Troy Maxson, for all his failings, is an extraordinary man. In a society that wasn’t racist, he would have become some sort of superstar. His real tragedy was being born in the wrong half of the 20th century.

Not that Maxson is the only fascinating character in this special play. Rose, played adequately if not with many dimensions by Jayne Trinette, is a tolerant wife who still has limits — and at a key moment she tells Troy that’s he’s reached those limits forever. As Cory, Travus Leroux is exceedingly persuasive: he’s most affecting when he wears the unmistakable countenance of a well-meaning young man who just can’t understand why he’s fated to follow the directions of screwed-up adults. Kim Sullivan is mostly excellent as Troy’s faithful friend Bono (though in act two he seemed for a few moments to lose hold of the character), and Reginald Kent Robinson, Jr. is just fine as Troy’s musician son Lyons, a young artist who relies on jazz to give him a reason to wake up in the morning.

Troy’s brother Gabe, played beautifully by Ron Bobb-Semple, was brain-damaged in World War II, and now finds himself talking to St. Peter and “chasing hellhounds” — activities which may get him re-committed to a mental institution. And Troy’s daughter Raynell, played charmingly by little Trinity Edwards, owns the stage during the moments in which she has a few lines.

Director Timothy Douglas does a first-rate job of balancing the emotional highs and lows of the play, though he makes an unscripted choice in the last scene which, I think, doesn’t pay off. Jeffrey W. Dean’s set, a realistic exterior of the two-story, run-down brick Maxson home, could hardly be better, and Saidah Ben Judah’s costumes are just right for personalities with little money but a great deal of dignity.

And dignity is what Fences is finally about. In this uniquely eloquent analysis of African-American life in the ’50s and early ’60s, August Wilson brings us a much-battered king, but one who can make even being a rubbish collector look golden. Kudos to American Stage for producing another of Wilson’s great dramas. And a standing ovation for Evander Duck, Jr., for finding the giant in troubled, wrong-headed, radiant Troy Maxson.

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