Turning barrier into family bond

Review: `Fences' at Everyman Theatre is a powerful story about ties and one man's lost baseball dreams.

January 12, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In August Wilson's Fences, it takes the character of Troy Maxson an inordinately long time to build the fence his wife Rose wants him to put up. By the time the fence is completed, it's too late.

Part of the world that Rose has been desperately trying to protect within the fence is lost. And part that she's been trying to keep out has worked its way in.

A fence is an obvious symbol, and in many ways this 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner is Wilson's most conventional drama - a play with a more clearly defined protagonist than his usual ensemble pieces, and with a readily accessible emphasis on parental, filial and marital relationships.

It's a good, safe place for a theater to begin Wilson's canon, and director Jennifer L. Nelson's production at Everyman Theatre is a robust effort with some forceful performances and only minor missteps.

The 1950s installment of Wilson's decade-by-decade look at 20th-century African-American life, Fences centers on Troy, a former star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, portrayed with due bravado by Frederick Strother. Although Troy has done many things in his 53 years, baseball has shaped his life. Now working as a garbage man, he still carries a baseball in the pocket of his coveralls, taking it out occasionally and fingering it as if he's looking for a game. A baseball bat is a fixture in his yard, and though he usually uses it to playfully swat at a rag ball suspended from a tree branch, he can also brandish it in anger.

Like many of Wilson's characters, Troy is a master storyteller, and Strother modulates his voice and gestures so effectively, it's easy to believe his friends and family willingly listen to him tell - and embellish - the same old tales over and over again.

Some of those tales are of Troy's baseball days. The glory Troy knew then has left a bitter taste in his mouth. Refusing to admit he was too old when the color barrier was broken in the Major Leagues, he's convinced that the black man will never get a fair shot in professional sports.

When his teen-aged son, Cory, is recruited for a college football scholarship, Troy isn't merely opposed to the idea, he's determined to thwart his chances. What hard-headed Troy can't see - and what his wise wife sees all too clearly - is that Cory's just trying to emulate his father. Adroitly capturing Cory's roiling emotions, Lance Williams is a revelation. It's a performance that demonstrates the impressive range of this young actor, who made his professional debut at Everyman last season in a role light-years apart from Cory.

Aakhu Freeman's depiction of Troy's wife, Rose, is equally sure-handed. A woman small enough for Strother's powerful Troy to hoist over his shoulder, Rose is the peacemaker and moral compass in this family. But Freeman never lets sanctimoniousness creep into her intense portrayal. Her Rose is a woman so committed to familial love and loyalty, she's more than a match for Troy, whose weakness is his inability to see that a son can neither escape nor deny his father's legacy.

One misguided choice among the supporting performances is S. Robert Morgan's portrayal of Troy's friend, Bono. Morgan gives him a stammer so thick, he seems dim-witted. Not only does this undercut Troy's strength by suggesting his closest friend isn't a peer, but it takes the focus away from Keith N. Johnson's sensitive portrayal of Troy's brain-damaged war veteran brother, Gabriel, who is one of Wilson's archetypal mystical figures.

Everyman has reconfigured its seating for the first time in two years for this production, with excellent results. Designer Daniel Ettinger's sturdy urban set situates the audience on three sides of the dirt yard in front of Troy's house.

Late in the second act when the fence finally encloses the yard, the audience is on the outside looking in, and Troy is trapped inside, almost as if the fence were a prison. By the final scene, however, when Rose has most of her family together again, the fence functions the way she'd always hoped it would - like a warm embrace. Troy may have never understood the point of this fence, but the audience at Everyman understands it perfectly.

Fences

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 3

Tickets: $15-$25

Call: 410-752-2208

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