Friday, December 6, 2013

Theater Review: Fences -- Long Wharf

Chris Myers, Esau Pritchett, Portia and G. Alvarez Reid. Photo: T.Charles Erickson
Wilson’s Messages Still Strong, but Character Portrayals Remain Too Much on the Fence
By Lauren Yarger
"Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.”
So goes one of the themes of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, Fences, about the African-American experience in 1950s Pittsburgh.

There also seem to be fences that separate some actors from the deepest part of their characters, however, in this production directed by Phylicia Rashad. We get a sense of actors playing parts, but not becoming the characters, so the Long Wharf Theatre production of Wilson’s still compelling tale of a former Negro League baseball star trying to come to grips with the responsibilities of life fails to hit a home run.

Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett) might have been one of baseball’s brightest stars if he hadn’t been black and if he had been just a little younger when Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier in the majors. Those “might have beens” haunt the trash collector and he wants a better life for his sons, Lyons (Jared McNeil) and Cory (Chris Myers).

So far they have been disappointments. Musician Lyons always seems in need of a handout or a free meal and Cory is wasting his time trying to earn a football scholarship instead of trying to get ahead at his after-school job at the local A&P. Adding to the burden of responsibility Troy feels in trying to provide for family is his mentally challenged brother, Gabriel (J. Alvarez Reid), who recently moved to his own place – taking his government support check with him.

Keeping Troy in line and providing a little joy in his life is his feisty and loving second wife, Rose (Portia). She cooks, cleans, runs interference for the boys and keeps Tory satisfied. Also providing some camaraderie is longtime friend and former prison mate Jim Bono (Phil McGlaston), who stops by occasionally to help Troy and Cory – when the teen isn’t neglecting his chores for football practice -- build a fence around their shabby home (the exterior of the house, designed by John Iacovelli, provides the backdrop for the play).

There is a fence between the father and his son, however, made plain by Troy’s confession that obligation, rather than love, provides the motivation for his part in their relationship. Troy also forsakes the love and devotion of Rose to jump the fence and to enjoy a feeling of no boundaries when he has an affair with another woman.

Troy fathers a daughter with the other woman and splinters the foundation of the fence protecting the family. Further tragedy results and Rose becomes the only mother little Raynell (Taylor Dior) knows. Family links are stress tested. 

The story remains as relevant and insightful as when the play first appeared in 1983. Themes about the struggles of African Americans in America and whether the sins of fathers are visited upon their children apply today as much as they did in the 1950s, when it is set. Costume Designer Esosa and Wig and Hair Designers J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene effectively convey a sense of time without making the piece dated. Take away the references to the racial makeup of the major leagues at the time, and this story could be about a family in modern-day Pittsburgh.

Wilson expertly conveys characters all wanting something beyond their reach – just over the fence where the grass looks a little greener. It’s unsettling and revealing and a play worth seeing. This production, as directed by Rashad, doesn’t reach its potential, however, as the actors perform, but don’t embody the richly written characters.

Pritchett, who many times speaks too rapidly to be understood, doesn’t find the conflict within Troy that lets us experience or empathize with his frustration with life. Portia nicely portrays the warm, supportive side of Rose, and her first-act banter and embarrassment over sexual comments that Troy jokingly makes are some of the show’s finest moments. We don’t fully feel her pain and betrayal, however, when Troy nonchalantly, so it would seem, takes a lover or how she comes to terms with her marriage and her role as mother to Raynell. Dior is cute as a button, however, and breathes a breath of fresh air into the production, much like Raynell does for the Maxson family, for the brief time she is on stage in act two.

McNeill and Myers adequately convey enough of their characters for us to know who they are, but we only see the surface of Gabriel and Bono. Fight scenes choreographed by Michael Rossmy also look staged rather than genuine. 

This production’s fence posts are compelling themes and characters. More dynamic direction could have driven them firmly into the ground.

The show runs through Dec. 22 on The Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre. Tickets are $40-$75: www.longwharf.org; 203-787-4282. A full performance calendar can be found here: http://www.longwharf.org/upcoming-events.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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