PCPA returns to Santa Maria's Marian Theater with a compelling American drama from acclaimed playwright August Wilson.
Following the 1987 Broadway production, “Fences” won the Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The 2010 Broadway production won the Tony for best revival, and the 2016 film adaptation was nominated for four Academy Awards. It's the third play in Wilson's “American Century Cycle,” aka the “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which chronicles the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. This entry takes us to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the year 1957.
Derrick Lee Weeden takes on the lead role of Troy Maxson, who was once a prominent baseball player in the Negro Leagues. Now middle-aged, he works collecting trash barrels, but intends to cross the color barrier and drive the truck instead.
The action takes place entirely in the Maxsons' barren backyard, which Troy is in the process of fencing in. (The fence takes on several allegorical interpretations as the play goes on.) Jason Bolen's set makes it look as if a real, weathered-looking urban home has been transported onto the Marian Theater stage. Downstage is a tree, with an old baseball dangling from it by a tattered rope. The limited setting and small cast put the focus on Wilson's carefully crafted dialogue. Costume designer Deb Trout dresses the characters in convincing period work and casual clothing.
Troy and his co-worker, Jim Bono (Michael J. Asberry), enter the yard, joking back and forth. Their rumpled, grimy coveralls suggest the rough working conditions that they endure. They're soon joined by Troy's wife Rose (Karole Foreman), and the three immediately give the impression that they have a long shared history. The friends' reminiscing is interrupted by the arrival of Lyons (Satchel Andre), Troy's son from a prior marriage. Troy complains that he only comes around on payday, seeking to borrow money.
Lyons is a musician, but his father implores him to get a regular paying job. Troy is even harder on Cory (Chris Mansa), his son with Rose, who is a promising high school football player. Cory's coach has arranged for a college scout to come see him play, but Troy will have no part of it, and wants his son to find a trade instead.
The play leaves us to question, is Troy looking out for his sons' well-being or is he crushing their dreams out of jealousy? Or a little of both?
When Cory asks him, “How come you ain't never liked me?,” he's nearly offended at the suggestion that he should have to like his own son. Troy also feels responsible for his younger brother, Gabriel (Michael J. Keck), who suffered a severe war injury that left him mentally disabled.
Gabe recently moved out of the house in an attempt to be more independent. He carries a trumpet everywhere and believes it's his job to alert Saint Peter to open the gates to heaven when the Judgement Day arrives. Troy remarks bitterly that if it wasn't for his brother's pension, he would have been left “without a pot to p--- in or a window to throw it out of,” despite all his hard work.
“When your daddy walked through the house,” Rose says of her husband late in the play, “he was so big, he filled it up.”
A role that's been played by Denzel Washington (revival and film version) and James Earl Jones (original Broadway production) naturally requires a great deal of charisma. Weeden fills up with the stage with his presence. Earlier this year, he gave an impressive performance as the wise, paternal Simon in PCPA's production of “The Whipping Man.” He brings an equal amount of gravitas to this very different character. We spend much of Act One learning Troy's backstory through the tall tales that he spins -- he claims he's wrestled with Death and bought his furniture from the Devil. Weeden dashes all over the stage as he acts them out with great enthusiasm.
While Troy is the center of attention, the supporting cast is in fine form as well.
Foreman played the lead in PCPA's 2011 production of “Caroline, or Change,” so she knows her way around a no-nonsense attitude. Her Rose is warm and loving, but she knows how put Troy in his place when he steps out of line.
Mansa has the physique and energetic movements of a young athlete. He captures the youthful optimism of Cory as well as his frustration as he tries to escape his father's shadow.
In contrast, Andre displays Lyons' more cavalier attitude toward Troy's attempts to control him.
The role of Gabriel is handled respectfully by Keck. He shows sincerity as he greets Lyons with the roar of a lion, and Rose by presenting her with a rose, and keeps it up as he repeats these rituals later on.
Asberry conveys Bono's deep bond with Troy, and his growing concern for him. Bono frequently brings up a newly arrived young woman from Florida, hinting that Troy has more than a passing interest in her, while Troy tries to deflect the implication.
As we enter Act Two, Troy's actions begin to divide him from his loved ones. Rose metaphorically compares her husband to hard, rocky soil, visually represented in the set. Where the edge of the stage drops off, we can see a bit of the roughly textured earth beneath the surface.
As the mood of the show becomes more ominous, music begins to cut in jarringly as scenes end, pointing up the drama. (Keck is also the show's composer.)
Young actress Kandace Flowers makes an impression during her brief time onstage as Raynell. Her character brings everything together in the final scene.
Timothy Bond has directed seven of the “Century Cycle” plays and his connection with the playwright's work informs this production.