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The Rousuck Review: Fences

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Everyman Theatre
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“Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.” That’s a line from August Wilson’s “Fences.”

Troy Maxson, the protagonist of this 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is building a fence for both reasons. But the “people” he wants to keep out aren’t people at all -- they’re Death and the Devil.

“Fences” is August Wilson’s most popular play – the 1950s installment of his decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life. It’s already had a star-studded Broadway revival, and now Everyman Theatre is producing it for the second time.

Clinton Turner Davis – an August Wilson veteran – directs Everyman’s new production. Its lead actor, Alan Bomar Jones, also has a history with Wilson’s plays -- and particularly with Troy Maxson; he’s played the role twice before.

Troy is a fictitious former baseball star in the Negro Leagues. He’s still bitter about not making it to the majors when Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Just the mention of Robinson propels him down his porch steps, tearing off his cap and breaking into a rant.

Jones is a large man; it’s easy to believe his Troy was an athlete. His stern demeanor captures Troy’s personality -- a man whose entire life has been a battle. No sooner does he finish railing against Jackie Robinson than he challenges Death itself, acting out how he wrestled Death and won.

Troy learned to play baseball in prison. Now he works for the Pittsburgh sanitation department and is married to a good woman, Rose, with whom he has a teenaged son named Cory.

Cory’s a nice kid and Brayden Simpson, an alum of the Baltimore School for the Arts, delivers a splendid portrayal as a gentle teen who’s eager to please.

Cory’s been recruited by a college football scout, and everyone but Troy realizes that Cory is desperate to follow in his father’s footsteps. All Troy can see is a repeat of the disappointment and dead end that marked his own athletic career.

The father-son conflict is central to “Fences,” but a marital conflict surfaces as well. Wilson wrote aria-like speeches for his characters, and some of his richest are for Troy’s wife, Rose.

Joy Jones plays Rose with the fortitude the character requires and also lets us see the love Rose feels for Troy. But her delivery of a crucial line that changes the course of their relationship elicited unexpected laughter on opening night.

August Wilson crafted “Fences” as a traditionally structured drama, with a single protagonist – in contrast to his ensemble-driven plays. The result is a play that’s not only powerful, but highly accessible.

Wilson did, however, include one of his archetypal mystical characters. Troy’s brother, Gabriel, is a brain-damaged war veteran. Now he chases so-called “hell hounds” and wears a battered trumpet on a string around his neck, waiting to blow it for St. Peter.

Bryant Bentley imbues this sad soul with a childlike range of emotions – from unbridled glee to fury. Director Davis’ production isn’t the strongest I’ve seen of this play; it wavers, at times. But Bentley’s depiction of Gabriel is among the most moving. Every time Troy looks at Gabriel, you sense the loss he feels for his diminished brother.

In many respects, “Fences” is a domestic drama in the mold of “Death of a Salesman” – which Everyman will produce later this season – or “The Glass Menagerie.” “Fences” is as focused on personal responsibility and familial relationships as it is on racial and economic issues. Everyman’s production illuminates those themes and reminds us why this play, which debuted only 30 years ago, is already deemed an American classic.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.