FENCES

By August Wilson (St. Louis Black Repertory Co.)

The Black Rep hits a home run with its superb production of African-American dramatist August Wilson's Fences, making it clear that even 12 years after its Pulitzer Prize, this play's story and issues are still resonant. Set in the late 1950s, the play examines the Maxons, a lower-middle-class black family who experience both ordinary life and enormous tragedy. How much do economic and sociological circumstances contribute to their tale? Are they better off "fenced in?" Wilson suggests that these answers, or possible solutions -- if any -- aren't easy or obvious.

Troy Maxon dominates his small family: wife Rose and teenage son Cory. Brother Gabriel and adult son Lyons are occasional dependents. At first it seems that all Troy needs is his job on the back of a city garbage truck, his steady wife, a pint of gin and a jaw with his lifelong pal Bono on Fridays. He's a monumental man (as he was writing the play, Wilson envisioned James Earl Jones, who debuted the role on Broadway).

As the story unfolds, we discover that Troy's stability has been hard-won. One of 11 children of a man as "evil as he could be," Troy picked cotton with his family in the Deep South. His father caught him making love to a neighborhood girl one afternoon, chased him off and tried to take the unfortunate girl for himself. Troy realized "the time had come for me to leave my daddy's house. And right there the world suddenly got big."

On his own, Troy becomes first a thief, then kills a man; he serves his time and emerges from prison to become a star in the Negro Leagues, where he meets Rose, the quintessential "good woman." "Too old" for the belatedly integrating major leagues, Troy gets a steady job with the sanitation department and, by adding to his income the army severance awarded to his disabled brother Gabriel (who totes a horn and acts as the play's mystic herald), he buys a house, which becomes both palace and prison. In Fences, Troy uses the word "responsibility" as often as Willy Loman brandishes "respect" in Death of a Salesman. And, of course, the irony is that Troy's downfall is precipitated by the very defenses he struggles so mightily to erect and maintain. In the Black Rep's production, A.C. Smith's performance as Troy is a marvel -- and truly astounding, considering that he only recently stepped into the part (Lincoln Kilpatrick was scheduled to play Troy; Smith had been cast as best friend Bono). He's an imposing man, with a rumbling voice and expansive gestures. Though the playing space at the Grandel is made even smaller by the set (which shows the rear of the orderly Maxon house thrust catty-corner into the yard, bordered by the posts of Troy's unfinished fence), Smith fills it even when squatting on the steps waving his pint bottle. As Troy, Smith first seems bursting with a Ralph Kramden-esque brio that makes his betrayal of his wife and family even more pitiful and catastrophic. But then, the opening words of the play sum up Troy's flaw.

As Fences begins, he and best friend Bono enter laughing, and Bono jokes: "Troy, you ought to stop that lying!" Indeed, Troy's mendacity grows. Every fib is completely justified until the last deception is, by necessity, revealed. And Troy, like his namesake city, is both destroyed and made immortal through the words of others. Fences shows a vanished moment in African-American history, loosely spanning the decades between World War II and Vietnam. Set designer Jim Burwinkel enthusiastically replicates a working-class black neighborhood in an unnamed city that is plainly Pittsburgh, Wilson's hometown.

The Black Rep's Ed De Shae has directed a brisk and mesmerizing production: The relationships between the characters are utterly convincing, especially Troy, who is, in the words of writer Brent Staples, "nearly impossible to love." Yet Linda Kennedy as Rose, his wife, makes him more lovable, or at least less daunting, by her open-hearted acceptance. Kennedy has a light touch with a part that requires her to go from adoring helpmeet to grievously wounded lover. Wilson gives her a show-stealing speech on Troy's betrayal, and Kennedy handles her "I been standing with you" sermon with steely grace. Son Cory is also required to show a transformation of character -- from fear to disdain to uncertain dignity. Kelly C. Henton does a fine job with a difficult part, and it's clear he's energized by playing with Smith. Eddie Webb as Bono makes a righteous foil for Troy -- he's Sancho Panza with a conscience, and when he turns away from Troy in dismay, his sorrow strengthens him. In supporting roles, Erik Kilpatrick as Lyons has just the right amount of guileful smarm for the would-be jazz cat who always needs a few dollars from his pop, and Dennis Lebby displays subtlety, elegance and exquisite physical control as the war-wound-addled Gabriel. Finally, young Ashlee Reynel Ward as the lovechild Raynell is convincingly both angelic and impudent.

There's only one conventional fence in the play, but the play's characters live with dozens of others -- physical, social and psychological. Some are chosen; most are not. Some have to do with age or capacity or gender or brute force (as is usually the case with Troy), but all hinge, fundamentally, on race. And over and over, Wilson poses an unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question: Are you better off inside than out? The Maxons face choices: the black-owned grocery store or the A&P? An athletic scholarship or a trade that promises steady income? The uncertain freedoms of ghetto life or indentured dignity in the military? Do you gamble everything for a home and a husband?

To be a homeowner in a stable, vital neighborhood of other black homeowners may be, in hindsight, Troy's real triumph, but the ultimate irony may be that Troy has no way of knowing how fleeting his victory is. Today miles of interstate highway, hundreds of acres of parking lots and Three Rivers Stadium sprawl over the black Pittsburgh neighborhood most similar to Fences' locale, all in the name of "urban renewal" -- another version of the fall of Troy.

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