'Fences' When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., matinees Sundays at p.m. Through April 28.
Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.
Tickets: $7 and $8.
*** "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner," says Troy Maxson, protagonist of August Wilson's 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Fences," currently making its Baltimore debut at the Spotlighters Theatre.
Husband, father, garbage collector, ex-con and former Negro League ballplayer, Troy spews out stories with the force of a batter winding up for a home run. He talks about how he has battled death and the devil; how his father mistreated him; how he ended up in jail; and, most of all, how he doesn't want his son Cory to make the same mistakes he did.
Like the decade in which it is set -- the 1950s -- "Fences" is Mr. Wilson's least adventuresome script. But while it may be structurally conventional, the play -- and especially the role of Troy -- is loaded with verbal pyrotechnics, making it an ambitious choice for a community theater.
Equally ambitious is the performance of Kenneth F. Hoke-Witherspoon as Troy, a role he assumed with less than two weeks' rehearsal after the actor who was originally cast had to withdraw due to medical problems. Seen in his third performance, Mr. Hoke-Witherspoon already demonstrated a better command of his lines than actor Yaphet Kotto showed at Washington's Arena Stage last season.
Mr. Hoke-Witherspoon has a solid grasp of Troy's stubborn streak; the character is as rigid as the fence his wife, Rose, wants him to build around their yard. Rose hopes the fence will hold her family together; Troy refuses to acknowledge that he's already standing outside it.
Although Troy dominates the play, Rose has some of the most moving speeches, and Kay Merrill delivers them with muted toughness that conveys strength without giving in to bathos. As zTC their son, whose greatest dream is to excel in sports like his dad, Daniel Gray slightly overdoes the teen-age mannerisms but grows convincingly as the play progresses.
In other roles, Darrell Taylor is overly affected as Troy's brain-damaged brother Gabriel, and Edward Smith Jr., as Troy's best friend, has the proper concerned attitude, but needs to speed up his timing.
Director Timothy Crawford has added a brief silent scene at the end of the play, suggesting that not only Troy, but also his devoted brother Gabe, have gone to their just rewards. An interesting coda, it is indicative of the thoughtful approach this // director and this theater have taken to a challenging script.