[image-1]One might wonder if playwright August Wilson’s Fences — written in the 1980s and set primarily in the America of the 1950s — is still relevant. One needn’t wonder for long, however; it is, and it still packs an emotional punch as well.
One of 10 plays that together form Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (or, more alliteratively, his Century Cycle), Fences has as its focus the lives of the Maxsons, a working-class African-American family dealing with a country in transition.
The issue of race looms large, as do the changing roles of the different members of the household. Segregation is addressed directly, as the characters discuss the preferential treatment given to whites in areas as disparate as professional baseball and employee work assignments in the local sanitation department. Gender relations and family dynamics are also explored. But as central to the play’s success as the overarching societal commentary are the more personal conflicts that fill the stage and inform the mostly excellent performances of the cast members.
Henry Clay Middleton deftly handles the lead role, patriarch Troy, with gravity and forcefulness. Even in his first scene when he’s joking with longtime friend Bono (a confidently likable Jay DeVon Johnson) after clocking out on payday, Middleton has an underlying intensity that is never fully absent. As the audience watches Troy gradually reveal himself to be much deeper, and more troubled, than the opening scene would initially suggest, it becomes clear Fences is a story about someone who’s haunted by choices he’s made in the past, and struggling among the inequalities of mid-century America and the mistakes he continues to make as he ages. Central to his internal conflict, too, is the sense that he recognizes his faults, but is prevented by his pride from acknowledging them to those closest to him. Middleton’s performance is riveting.
As his wife, Rose, Teresa Wallace holds her own. The two mostly flirt and bicker with one another in the first act, and there is an easy rapport between the two. Wallace does a wonderful job of hinting at the lack of fulfillment that plagues her in her role as the dutiful wife. As the second act develops and she is comes into explicit conflict with Troy, nuance is mostly jettisoned in favor of icy condemnation and resentment. When she goes toe-to-toe with Troy, the confrontation is powerful and effective.
While the older cast members are all very impressive, the younger actors deliver performances that are a bit more uneven. Maurice J. McPherson as Lyons, Troy’s eldest son from an earlier life, is charming enough for the majority of the play, but misses a few opportunities to flesh the character out. Robert J. Townsend as Cory, Troy and Rose’s teenaged son, is initially unconvincing but does an admirable job of confronting Middleton in the later scenes. He ultimately shows a lot of promise.
The set design is effective, crisp, and unfussy — it consists of only a single location, the Maxsons’ front yard, where the titular fence, which reflects the family’s modest aspirations of stability, is slowly being constructed. The sound and lighting design are minimal, but could stand to be tightened up a bit as a phone kept ringing once it had been answered, and lights went up early one time before a quick adjustment was made. The costumes are generally appropriate to the period, although a few items were clearly more contemporary and some of them were a poor fit. But this is probably due as much to budgetary limitations as anything else.
Ultimately, Fences is successful primarily because of the powerful lead acting and strong source material. Race identity, equality of opportunity, gender relations, kids pushing back against their parents’ values — though the specifics may have changed, these issues are, and will most likely continue to be, important ones for countless Americans.