Regional Reviews: Chicago
So, this story of a frustrated former baseball player, which begins in late summer or early fall of 1957 as the Milwaukee Braves approached their World Series championship, may have a special resonance in this city. There's nothing parochial about this production, though. A co-production with the Arizona Repertory of Tucson and Phoenix, and Indiana Repertory in Indianapolis, it was performed in those three cities earlier this season prior to its Milwaukee engagement. It's directed by Lou Bellamy, the Artistic Director of St. Paul, Minnesota's Penumbra Theatre Company, who was one of Wilson's earliest supporters and artistic collaborators, and remains a leading interpreter of Wilson's work. Bellamy directed the piece three years earlier for the Denver Center Theatre, with much of the same cast of the current production, including David Alan Anderson as Troy, Kim Staunton as Troy's wife Rose, James T. Alfred as Troy's older son Lyons, and Marcus Naylor as the friend Bono.
Fences is set in a very specific time and, though the setting is described as "a big city neighborhood," there are clues that it is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as are all of the Cycle plays, except for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Also called the Century Cycle, each of its ten plays takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. With Fences representing the 1950s, it appropriately enough shows that era as a time of transition. Younger blacks like Cory are beginning to have hopes for things like college and color TVs, while older ones like Troysaid to be 53 years old at the start of the playis weighed down by the discrimination he experienced as a boy and young man in the Jim Crow south as well as in his baseball career. The death of hope is shown to be one of the most damaging legacies of American slavery and its aftermath.
Like all great writing, though, Fences makes something universal out of the specific. Its themesand it has many themes without feeling overstuffed or clutteredare timeless and relevant to all races, I would contend. Troy, emotionally distant to his sons and unfaithful though not unloving to his wife, struggles with the responsibilities of being a husband and father. He only seems to relax when he's with his longtime friend and garbage truck co-worker Bono. His desire to escape the pressures of providing for a family leads him to an extramarital affair, which ironically takes him back to parenthood even as his younger son is approaching adulthood. Discovery of the affair leads Rose to question her own life as a committed spouse and to wonder if she should have submerged her own needs to be a loving wife to Troy for 18 years. Wilson sums it up when Bono comments to Troy on the fence Troy is building around his yard: "some people build fences to keep people out ... and other people build fences to keep people in." Troy has an emotional fence to keep Cory, and to a lesser degree Rose, at a distance, while Rose struggles to keep Troy in and connected to the family.
A related theme is the legacy of parents to children, and particularly the cycle of abuse. Troy's father was emotionally and physically abusive, leading Troy to leave home at age 14. Troy credits the man for having a sense of responsibility to his 11 children even as he behaved selfishly toward them. That rearing has left Troy with a conflicted attitude toward his own sonscommitted to providing for them in their childhood, but maintaining an emotional distance and practicing what he believes is tough love. Will this legacy of abuse be inherited by Cory (and by Raynell, the daughter borne of Troy's affair)?
These universal themes and questions are made clear through the very specific characters created by Bellamy and his cast. Anderson and Staunton bring gut-wrenching emotions out of Troy and Rose. Anderson's Troy ranges from raucous and crude in his moments with Bono to flirtatiousness with Rose, sternness that becomes physically threatening to Cory and finally leading to a devastating defeat when he realizes he has forced his family out of his life. They're irrevocably on the other side of the fence nowand he is totally alone. Troy is one of the great roles of modern theater, maybe of theater of all time. It's a tragic role of Shakespearean depth and Anderson makes us feel every square inch of this complicated, tortured man.
Equally powerful is Staunton as Rose. While in act one Rose is ever the faithful and loving wife and mother, Staunton's character erupts in grief and anger when she learns of Troy's betrayal. We feel every ounce of her pain, and thus appreciate her eventual kindness and humanity when she is able to reconcile her feelings toward Troy, if not entirely forgive his actions. Edgar Sanchez as Cory displays considerable range as well, changing from the initially optimistic and energetic high school athlete to a boy alternately defiant and intimidated by his father's bullying until their relationship breaks and Cory becomes completely hardened.
Less explosive, but quietly impressive are Naylor as Bono and Alfred as Lyons. Naylor's Bono is deceptively complex. At first he seems simply a puppy-like sidekick to the Troy he admires, but Naylor gradually shows us Bono's critical eye in viewing his friend. As Lyons, Troy's 33-year-old son, a struggling professional musician, Alfred subtly mixes the sexy, slick, and slippery side of a man who lives in the shady nighttime world of jazz clubs with an underlying decency and loyalty to family. Lou Bellamy's brother Terry plays Troy's brother Gabriel, who was brain damaged in World War II and whose disability pension has been a source of income for the family. Bellamy's Gabriel has a childlike sweetness that is touching and endearing. The young Milwaukee actresses Makayla Davis and Maya O'Day Biddle alternate as Raynell.
The Milwaukee Rep's 720-seat Quadracci Powerhouse Theater (one of three performance spaces) is the perfect size for Fences, with Vicki Smith's realistic set of a life-size brick row house dominating the stage. The home, which Troy purchased with money from a settlement following Gabriel's war injury, symbolizes the tension of the play. It's Troy's trophy and refugesometimes his castle and sometimes his prisonevidence of his success in providing for his family, but a confining space as well. A fence under construction (and later completed) rings most of the semi-thrust stage's apron. Matthew Lefebvre's costumes capture the period and personas of each of the characters: work uniforms and weekend wear for Troy and Bono, everyday house dresses and Sunday best for Rose, high school sportswear and a U.S. Marine uniform for Cory, eclectic combinations for the mentally challenged Gabriel, and fashion-on-a-budget for Lyons. Don Darnutzer's lighting cleverly sets the moods of the nine scenes and Brian Peterson's sound design includes moody and soulful music between those scenes.
Bellamy's vision for Fences is completely uncompromising. He challenges us to see Troy as clearly as does Rose. His superb actors connect us to these characters of such a different time (and for most of us, such different circumstances) that they make the case for Fences as a play for the ages. On the surface, it's a classic example of 20th century American "kitchen sink" realismto be considered alongside the best of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as realistic as William Inge's plays but with more raw emotional power. It has its place in Wilson's monumental Century Cycle, but at the same time transcends it into something more universal. Decades from now, I suspect audiences will return to the Century Cycle to better understand the African-American 20th century experience through Wilson's combination of poetry, fantasy, and realism, but they will return to Fences to ponder its themes of family, parenthood and legacy that will transcend all of that.
Fences will play the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, 108 East Wells St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, through May 22, 2016. For further information and ticketing, visit www.milwaukeerep.com or call 414-224-9090.