'Fences' delineates barriers of family life

November 26, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Lead actor Gilbert Lewis makes his entrance laughing and joking in Center Stage's powerful production of "Fences." Almost immediately, Lewis' sonorous voice turns the play's heightened, poetic dialogue into a form of buoyant music. But since "Fences"Lead actor Gilbert Lewis makes his entrance laughing and joking in Center Stage's powerful production of "Fences." Almost immediately, Lewis' sonorous voice turns the play's heightened, poetic dialogue into a form of buoyant music. But since "Fences" is by August Wilson -- one of this country's foremost and most forthright chroniclers of black urban life -- that music quickly turns into the blues.

Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, "Fences" is the 1950s installment of Wilson's ambitious decade-by-decade examination of the black experience in 20th century America. It's also the author's most accessible and conventional script. A domestic drama, "Fences" focuses closely on the character of the father, Troy Maxson, a former Negro League star, embittered and frustrated by having been passed over by the major leagues.

Center Stage's production -- directed movingly, but not sentimentally, by Donald Douglass -- is the fourth I have seen of "Fences." And though I've seen actors, professional and amateur, capture many of Troy's complex qualities -- his pride, his stubbornness, his sense of duty and his essential, if misguided, goodness -- Lewis is the only one I've seen who's brought gracefulness to the role.

Like his mellifluous delivery, which is especially fitting since Wilson has acknowledged that his writing is inspired by music, Lewis' limber body language is so appropriate that it makes you realize how much other portrayals have lacked without it. Not only does the actor's fluid movement convey the dance-like athleticism of a former professional baseball player, but it silently softens Troy's nearly implacable, ultimately tragic rigidity.

This is a considerable achievement in the depiction of a character who turns his wife against him by becoming involved with another woman, and turns his younger son, Cory, against him by refusing to allow the boy to compete for a college football scholarship. And yet, at the end of his life, Troy has regained the respect of his wife, resolutely played by Denise Burse-Mickelbury. And she, in turn, passes that lesson of respect on to Cory, whose portrayal by Kevin Thigpen affectingly captures the turbulent journey from teen-age rebellion to eventual adult acceptance.

It is a tribute to Douglass' careful direction and particularly to the way in which Lewis totally embraces his character that when understanding finally comes to Troy's wife and son, it also comes to the audience, and it cannot be dismissed as mere nostalgia or belated wish fulfillment.

With the exception of lighting that occasionally verges on the melodramatic, this is a production distinguished by its sensitivity. The play's title, incidentally, refers to the fact that Troy's wife wants him to build a fence around their house -- though Troy can't understand why. "Some people build fences to keep people out," his best friend explains, "and other people build fences to keep people in." By the time Troy has built the fence, he is no longer welcome within it. But it's difficult to imagine a more welcoming production of "Fences."

"Fences"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Sundays and most Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Dec. 1 at 1 p.m.; through Dec. 19. (Sign-interpreted performance Dec. 18 at 2 p.m.; audio-described performance Dec. 5 at 2 p.m.)

Tickets: $10-$35

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

*** 1/2

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