REVIEW: FENCES at Lone Tree Arts Center

By Katharyn Grant

The Lone Tree Arts  Center’s current production of Fences crackles with life.  It is fierce, and it is a masterpiece. The incredibly gifted actors, beautifully-wrought set design, and well-paced direction by Wren T. Brown, all bring August Wilson’s play to wonderful life, and the result is stunning.

At intermission, I overheard an older woman tell her friend that the acting so natural she forgot that she was watching a play.  I heard another patron comment on the set and lighting, specifically the lit windows in the fabricated tenement homes, and the look of light filtered through leaves, casting shadows against the Maxson’s home.  These and the other careful details are testimony to the creativity and pains-taking effort on the part of the entire artistic team, including Edward E. Haynes Jr (set design), and Karyn Lawrence (lighting design).  

Seeing this play felt like an event, partly because the venue is so gorgeous, and partly because of the sweeping magnitude of this American masterwork, and the integrity with which it is executed.

August Wilson, one of the quintessential playwrights of our time, shines a light on the black experience, capturing the vernacular and culture with precision, while also exploring universal themes and relationships that resonate in all of us, regardless of race. We are moved and come out the other side feeling changed, as though we’ve lived an entire lifetime in the span of time it takes to watch this play.  The broad scope and breadth of this exploration into human frailties calls to mind the iconic work of William Shakespeare.

Playwright August Wilson (April 27, 1945 – October 2, 2005) grew up in the poorest home in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  The family had no indoor plumbing. Despite this, Wilson went to a mostly white high school. After a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper he had written himself on Napoleon, a teenage August dropped out of high school. For the next five years he went to the library every day and educated himself by reading voraciously.

He once told an interviewer for Esquire magazine that wanted to write about black culture as a way of helping to create a  black identity of self-respect: “we had a culture that was valid… we weren’t willing to trade it to participate in the American Dream.”  Wilson was performing a kind of cultural alchemy, giving validity to those who were marginalized, by articulating their stories.

Wilson’s own stepfather, David Bedford, was an ex-convict whose race prevented him from earning a football scholarship to college.  This man became an inspiration for Fences’ embittered protagonist Troy, a former baseball player, blocked from the major leagues by segregation. Troy Maxson is one of the most complex and tragic characters in all of theater, full of the pathos and hubris of Willy Loman and Othello combined.

As patriarch Troy, Esau Pritchett is a force of nature, fully embodying this energetic and conflicted  man, who’s hungry nature leads him to make terrible and tragic mistakes. He has created a decent life for himself and his little family, but still he chafes against the confines of this life, wounding those closest to him.   His bitterness and anger come from deep, life-long disappointment. Troy works as a garbage man in Pittsburg and has just received a promotion to become a driver instead of handling the barrels. Years earlier he’d given up his dream of playing professional baseball because he’d gotten too old, and the Negro League paid too little.

Julianne Chidi Hill inhabits the role of Troy’s wife, Rose, with easy charm, vulnerability, and toughness. She is the grounding calm amidst the storm. Rose not only raises her own child, but also treats Troy’s other children as if they were her own.  Sensible and loving, Rose gives her husband’s life meaning and purpose. When confronted with Troy’s affair, she unleashes a verbal torrent to match Troy’s feeble but forceful rationale for being unfaithful. It’s one of the play’s defining scenes. These characters are engaged in a boxing match of the soul, and both Hill and Pritchett are breath-taking; they pull no punches.

As Troy’s best friend, Bono, Leonard Earl Howze brings relaxed good-humor as a foil for the embittered Troy.  Bono explains that some people build fences to keep the world out, but Rose wants a fence to keep Troy in, because she loves him so much.  And while Troy is unable to express love for his own sons, he is able to express love for his friend, Bono.

Troy has a child from a previous relationship, Lyons, who works as a professional musician.  He works gig to gig, with no steady job, often relying on his wife to support him, and this evokes his father’s disgust.  Troy was in the penitentiary during Lyons’ childhood, and won’t even go to the club to hear his son play music. “Sure I have to eat, but I also have to live,” Lyons says, when pressured to give up his dream.  Bradford Barnes portrays the disenfranchised musician with smooth panache, and a physicality that shows he has a great sense of rhythm.

Music was very important to playwright August Wilson, so this character carries a special weight. Wilson told Newsday in 1987, “I see the blues as a book of literature and it influences everything I do…. Blacks’ cultural response to the world is contained in (the) blues.”  So Lyons’ dogged determination to play music is deeply important to the story. It is an act of defiant poetry-making.

Wilson listened to music while writing Fences, and viewed his writing as a kind of music. The characters in Fences even have private moments where they actually sing the blues.  These moments are scattered throughout the play, and lend an intimacy. Rose sings while doing her laundry, calling on Jesus to be her fence, her protection, while Troy and his youngest son both sing about a dog named Blue.

As younger son Cory, Jay Reeves is by turns guileless, forthright, vulnerable, and volatile.  This appears to be a break-through role for Reeves, who holds his own amid the older actors with whom he shares the stage.  Cory has been offered a college football scholarship, but his father is against it. In one of the play’s core scenes Cory rails against his father:  “You did nothing but hold me back, afraid I’d be better than you!” Their family home was not paid for through Troy’s hard work, but with their Uncle Gabe’s disability money. Cory confronts his father with this difficult reality, which speaks directly to his Troy’s deep sense of hidden shame.

Darryl Alan Reed excels as Cory’s disabled Uncle Gabe, portraying this innocent character’s enthusiasm and sincerity with total conviction.  Gabe believes that he’s an angel, which creates a counter-point to Troy’s endless talk of Death and the Devil.

Watching this play feels very nourishing, as though one has ingested enough psychic calories to be sustained for a very long time. Fences wrestles with the psychological boundaries between people in close familial relationships.  Wilson’s characters work to define themselves in relation to one another and in relation to a harsh outside world.

“The whole time I was growing up…living in his house…Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere… It would wrap around you and lay there until you couldn’t tell which…was you anymore….I’ve got to find a way to get rid of that shadow, Mama,” Cory pleads. To which Rose responds: “You either. . . grow into it or cut it down to fit you. But that’s all you got to make life with.”  

Sometimes the sins of the father are visited on the children, because those are the only building blocks one is given with which to build his or her life.  August Wilson and this great team of artists plumb the depths of this theme with spectacular skill and aplomb.

This is a beautiful production, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Be drawn into the family drama of FENCES at Lone Tree Arts Center now until April 21st. Evening Performances are April 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, Matinee Performances: April 7, 8, 11, 14, 15, 21 and Student Matinees: April 12, 18. For Tickets or more information, contact the Lone Tree Box Office by calling 720-509-1000, Monday-Friday, 10am-4pm or at Lone Tree Arts Center is located at 10075 Commons Street in Lone Tree, CO.



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