By James V. Ruocco
American playwright August Wilson is best known for compelling theatrical works that traced the African-American struggle and the need for freedom and acceptance in the wake of freedom or adversity with unflinching poetry and honesty.
The settings, the people, the depressed neighborhoods and the everyday language of black America, rang loud and clear in the truest and purest form imaginable. But Wilson, refusing to be categorized or stereotyped, wrote plays such as "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and "Seven Guitars," in a manner that was truly inspirational, yet very universal.
Each one was purposely designed to "raise consciousness through the act of live theater” and celebrate "the poetry in the everyday language of the people," regardless of skin color.
In "Fences," one of Wilson's most celebrated and performed works, the playwright turns the clock back to Pittsburgh of the 1950's to tell the powerful story of Troy Maxson, an angry sanitation worker and ex-Negro League baseball player, plagued by a conflicted upbringing and a troubled personal life of contradictions, racism, financial difficulties and disappointments.
Maxon's search for something he might not be able to find, with or without his family or friends, is the heart and soul of "Fences," which has lovingly been revived this winter at the Ridgefield Theater Barn. The production itself is genuine, intense, passionate and heartbreaking. It also comes gift wrapped with a spectacular cast of actors and a wisely-chosen director well deserving of a standing ovation or two.
The enlistment of Katherine Ray as director of "Fences" is absolutely thrilling. Who better than Ray to bring August Wilson's near three-hour Falstaffian drama to life. She is an actress herself, so she knows the entire actor process from start to finish. She's a director who knows, understands and loves theater, inside out. Ray is also someone who takes chances and puts her own directorial spin on everything she casts, creates and nourishes. In short, she is bloody brilliant.
Here, we get a moving, intimate, finely calibrated production that hooks the audience from the very beginning and keeps them fascinated and invested in every scene, every conversation, every character evolution, every passage of time, every outburst and confrontation, every joke and one-liner and every metaphor and ambition. Yes, these are actors performing in a much rehearsed play with dialogue by August Wilson and apt direction by Ms. Ray. But none of "Fences" seems rehearsed or staged. Instead, these are real people with real emotions who invite us into their lives for hour upon hour upon hour. We sit there in the smartly-designed environs of the Ridgefield Theater Barn as quiet observer watching everything they say and do. And never once are we reminded that we are watching a play. This "Fences" is real, raw, riveting and emotional.
Pacing, of course, is everything in an August Wilson play. In order for it to work, the action of the story can never once stop or drop for a moment. Ray brings the right formidable energy and pathos to the proceedings. She locates, dissects and flavors the play's emotional core like a master chef. She knows when to pause, frame, stop, go and linger without ever missing a beat. She treats Wilson's symbolic, verbose and epic dialogue and themes with the respect they deserve. She also has the actor's entering and exiting though the main aisle of the theater (only when necessary), which further elevates the play's closeness and realistic intimacy.
It also helps that this production of "Fences" is blessed with Foster Evans Reese, an enigmatic actor of the highest order, who, in the principal role of Troy Maxson, gives one of the best performances of the year. It's a role he was born to play. It's a role that he makes entirely his own. It's a role he invests with such sweep and power, you never once are reminded of the many actors who played the part before including James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington and British comedian Lenny Henry. It's his from the moment he takes his place on the Ridgefield Theater Barn stage until the final curtain call, three hours later.
As an actor, Reese has a commanding voice, presence and style that serves the material well. His Troy is earthy, honest, provocative, proud and very, very real. His interaction with the other actors on the stage in engaging, personable and moving. Moreover, he gets and understands the character he's playing, from his savage fury and gentility to his ongoing battle as a victim of the times, the period and the prejudice that he faces on a daily basis.
We understand the buried anger of a man living in a white-dominated world where he is continually reminded that he's inferior because of his skin color. We get his desire to be man-of-the house to his wife and children. We understand his restlessness, his need to control and dominate, his Friday pay-check angst, his infidelity, his confessions, his apologies, his pain and his desired need for acceptance. We also get the character's rise and fall, all of which is communicated effortlessly by the actor.
They don't come any better than Tracey McAllister, a dynamic, personable actress who plays the part of Troy's second wife Rose, with tremendous ease and compassion. She draws tremendous strength from simple observation and reaction. Her characterization and line delivery is natural and beautifully rendered. Her chemistry with Reese is completely "spot on." And she brilliantly conveys Rose's acceptance of a bone-tired life and marriage that drifts on from one week to week, month to month, year to year, with obvious reticence.
As Cory Maxson, the son who comes to despise his father, Shelby Davis communicates the hurt, pain and inner torment of the father-son upheaval with punctuated insight. Playing Troy's longtime friend Jim Bono, Kevin Knight is centered, charismatic and so completely believable in the part, you'd swear Wilson penned the character with him in mind.
As Troy's older son Lyons Maxson, a musician of sorts from a previous marriage, Steffon Sampson plays the part with particular snap and gusto. Dania Fredrick, in the role of Raynell Maxon, is completely charming. She doesn't appear until the almost-end of the second act, but when she does, it's well worth the wait. Theater is her calling. Make no mistake about it.
Playing Gabriel Maxson, Troy's younger brother, an ex-soldier whose war injury has caused him obvious psychological damage, Dan Fredrick makes a striking impression. As an actor, he crafts an intelligent, sensitive, honest performance that is fraught with real emotion and sensitivity. And whenever, he's on stage talking, interacting with the other characters or simply just observing, the actor has a firm, deeply committed grasp on his character and his noticeable affliction. Amazing! Amazing! Amazing! .
"Fences," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987, is an important piece of theater with an emotional brilliance and energy that elevates this revival to "not to miss" status. It also implodes with brilliant direction by Katherine Ray and some of the finest dramatic acting on record from a seven-member cast that Wilson, if he were alive today, and in the audience of this intimate Connecticut theater, would no doubt stand up and cheer, again, again and again.
(Group photo of "Fences"
cast and crew taken by Christopher Setter)
cast and crew taken by Christopher Setter)
"Fences" is being staged at the Ridgefield Theater Barn ( 37 Halpin Lane, Ridgefield, CT), now through Feb.24.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 431-9850