As a poet turned playwright, August Wilson has a welcome weakness for immersing his characters in their own oral tradition, letting them talk out their tales, weaving conflict, humor and tragedy into a single seamless fabric.
Troy Maxon, the tragic hero of Fences, is a supreme storyteller, and his baseball background and front-porch sensibility make him equally at home in front of the old brick house in the shadows of Pittsburgh, where Wilson set the play, and in the tradition of American theatrical heavyweights whose fraternity Troy has joined.
Dan Guyette's scene design has turned Troy's house into wood, surrounding it by impossible structures that feel like an Escher illusion, bricking Troy into his dirt yard in the same way that Willy Loman was surrounded by claustrophobic high-risers blocking out the sun.
It's 1957, and the 53-year-old Troy has given up swinging for the fences in the old Negro League to fight his battles with the garbage collector's union, with his youngest son and with the sickle-toting specter of Death, who "ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner." Troy's family is a complicated web of relationships: two sons from two different wives, a daughter by another lover, a brother who left part of his head in battle in WWII, and Rose, his wife of 18 years. They are a family as powerful on the stage as Arthur Miller's Lomans or Eugene O'Neill's Tyrones, and their laughter, their myth-making and their struggles are a unique product of both "the descendants of African slaves" and the definitive American family, wrestling with themselves in the dirt yard, asserting their identity with a hammer and saw, a $10 loan, lively embraces and the haunting crack of an old baseball bat.
Jeffrey Nickelson simplifies Troy's complex and seductive character, smoothing some of the jagged edges that make Troy intoxicating and spellbinding in one moment, shocking and horrifying in another, and determined and compassionate in still another mood, making sweet talk out of the lint in his pockets and oddly romantic musings out of a promise to take Rose upstairs where he can "fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever." Troy may not be larger than life, but he proves slightly too big for Nickelson to get a handle on.
Adriene Martin-Fullwood's understated but powerful Rose is a constant presence on the set, whether joyfully interacting with the men or silently lingering within the house, still in sight and moving through the background like a guilty thought knocking around Troy's conscience. Other outstanding performances come from Dwayne Carrington, as Troy's friend Bono, and David Pinckey as Cory, the younger son challenging his father to step aside and make room for a new generation in a tense, harrowing scene on the porch steps, telling Troy, "You in my way, I got to get by."
Chip Walton's direction has warning-track power, but he falls short of fully capturing the impact of this family's story. There is an odd moment at the play's conclusion, when Wilson has scripted "a dance of atavistic signature and ritual" for Gabrielle, Troy's trumpet-laughed brother with the steel plate in his head. Walton and Hugo Jon Sayles in the role turn to a fury of tap dancing to capture the moment, but you sense that Wilson's atavistic journey is meant to delve farther back into ancestral memory.
The raw material of Fences is the single greatest strength of this production, and the chance to see this contemporary masterpiece brought convincingly to life makes it an unequivocally recommendable evening at the theater.