Commanding performances and straight-line direction that launch language like rockets added up to a compelling production of August Wilson’s Fences at California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda’s outdoor Bruns Amphitheater during opening week.
The 1987 play earned the American playwright his first of two Pulitzer Prizes and is one of his massive ten Pittsburgh Cycle plays set in the 20th century. Fences zeroes in on the 1950s and features Troy Maxson (a magnificent Aldo Billingslea), a Negro League baseball player who aged out of eligibility before Blacks were allowed in the MLB. Resigned to labor as a sanitation worker, Maxson’s best friend, two sons by different mothers, a devoted wife, and a fence that she wants him to build to contain the fragile family aren’t enough to fill his appetites or stem his troubled wandering.
A too-thick corner on the doorway of Michael Locher’s minimal set design obscured crucial sightlines for some in the audience, but it was a minor mark against an otherwise suitable set. Voices of local Black women from Community Partners Allen Temple Arms and Berkeley Food and Housing Project that were blended into the soundscape were a wonderful idea that might have been even better if used more fully — or eliminated entirely and allowed to serve as work-in-progress input that enriched the final direction without needing to be broadcast. Minus the program notes, they might have seemed like interruptions that break the flow of Mikaal Sulaiman’s fine sound design. These are minor quibbles in an overall profoundly moving presentation.
Plays that are chock full of dominating male characters are a Wilson trademark — as is true of Shakespeare — but envisioned by director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, it’s Troy’s wife, Rose (expansive, compelling Margo Hall), who towers above the male-centric fray. It’s not easy to imagine an actor portraying such range: lusty wife, good-humored partner, bright-minded money-minder, charming neighbor and friend, solid woman of faith, and tender mother to Troy’s son from a previous marriage — and in the play’s most critical moments, a baby and young girl — who don’t bear her bloodline but are nonetheless loved like they are born of her own flesh. Hall carries the load like it’s a feather while decorating her portrayal with all the color of a peacock’s tail.
Best buddy Bono (Guiesseppe Jones) is a jovial audience for Troy’s long-winding tales of half-truths that mythologize his past: encounters with “Death” and the devil are like victorious batter stare-downs with a cocky pitcher; timid requests for a promotion from garbage lifter to truck driver become epic stories of courageous confrontation. Applying the same storytelling to explain his less-than-innocent dalliances or to sermonize to his sons, Troy is less successful. Teenager Cory (J. Alphonse Nicholson) sees the light dimming on his future as a college football player as his father does everything to cross check his progress. Lyon (Lance Gardner), a jazz musician who Troy believes is only after a cut of his weekly paycheck but who is, in actuality, seeking approval and respect, is equally undermined by his father’s cutting words.
Only Troy’s brother Gabriel (a sensitive portrayal of mental impairment by Donald E. Lacy Jr.) finds solace in Troy’s words. Repeatedly worried that “Troy is angry” at him and frantic to assist Saint Peter in opening Heaven’s gates, the interactions between the two men find Troy at his most honest and comforting.
But it’s guilt that drives Troy’s engine most often. And after a charming, laugh-filled Act I, the start of the second act smolders with pent-up friction. When the tension is allowed free reign, it’s explosive. Only Raynell (Anaiya Asomugha and Kailynn Guidry alternate in the role), the illegitimate daughter of Troy, escapes the full throttle of resentment and arguments that threaten the family bonds.
Resolution and responsibility finally arise courtesy of forgiveness — and in that regard, Rose is queen of Fences. Myrick-Hodges stays true to Wilson by honoring his language and legacy, but also, dislodges our definitions of strength, virility, and people’s capacity to love.