With volcanic central performances, solid production values, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning script, August Wilson’s Fences, directed by Gregg T. Daniel at International City Theatre in Long Beach, is a show you shouldn’t miss.
Fences opens in 1957 in Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson (Michael A. Shepperd), a talented Black baseball player some years earlier, never achieved the success he craved and felt he deserved. Part was due to racial discrimination, but it’s also hinted his age had something to do with it – he was in prison for a number of years, and by the time he got out, he was considered too old for the game. He now collects trash, living for each Friday, when he collects his pay and shares a pint of booze with his friend and fellow garbageman Jim Bono (Christopher Carrington).
Troy’s wife Rose (Karole Foreman) – whom he can’t seem to keep his hands off – is good-natured but firm, collecting Troy’s weekly pay envelope, keeping the house in order, and banking the adolescent fires of their son Cory (Jermelle Simon), a high school football player good enough to be a prospect for college recruiters. Rose is also on good terms with Lyons (Theo Perkins), Troy’s adult son from a previous marriage, a musician seemingly always in need of a loan; and Gabriel (Matt Orduna), Troy’s younger brother, whose wartime head wound has left him mentally damaged.
Fences isn’t a nice play, and the principal reason is that Troy Maxson isn’t a nice person: we discover he bought his house by appropriating the money Gabriel was awarded for his disability; he fiercely belittles his older son Lyons, and bullies his younger son Cory, surreptitiously sabotaging the boy’s dream of playing football; and, though he seems to enjoy Bono’s company, he makes it clear that he’s the important half of that duo. More seriously, though he claims to dote on Rose, he has cheated on her with a young woman whom he has impregnated: when he admits the affair and his impending fatherhood to Rose, he also refuses to give up his mistress, cruelly telling his wife that the other woman gives him pleasures she cannot.
But it’s Troy’s coruscating bitterness which pervades the play. He feels he’s gotten a raw deal from life, and, in return, he seems determined to make life difficult for everyone in his orbit. He rants, he raves, and he barges through the play like a bulldozer, mowing down anyone who makes the mistake of getting in his way.
As Troy, Mr. Shepperd erupts with thundering energy from the moment he steps onto the stage, as Troy’s bitterness, rancor, and egotism spew out of him in torrents, making a viewer wonder at times how he’s even able to catch a breath. Resisting the urge to make Troy likable, Mr. Shepperd imbues him with all the arrogance and meanness the man possesses, while giving full measure to the few quiet moments when we see the tortured soul inside. It’s a riveting and virtuoso performance, and propels the play.
Matching him step for step is Ms Foreman. Her Rose is gentle and genteel, flattered by her husband’s lusty attentions but good-naturedly chiding him for displaying them in public; she’s so amiable and grounded that it seems nothing could rile her. But then Troy reveals his infidelity, and Rose is galvanized: the nice, even-keeled housewife disintegrates into a woman betrayed, deeply angry and irreparably hurt by the man to whom she has dedicated her life. Ms Foreman’s subtle yet devastating transition, and the explosion it triggers, is spellbinding.
The rest of the cast – which also includes Mma-Syrai Alek as 7-year-old Raynell, the daughter Troy had with his mistress – is exemplary. If one must be singled out, it is Mr. Orduna, whose performance as the mentally challenged yet trusting Gabriel is, at the same time, flamboyant but carefully nuanced – his final moment in the play is sublime and heartwrenching.
The play is directed at a crisp pace by Gregg T. Daniel, and the set by Don Llewellyn, lighting by Karyn D. Lawrence, costumes by Kim DeShazo, and sound by Jeff Polunas all make major contributions. My one quibble is with the set changes: while most are carried out unobtrusively by actors in semi-darkness, two of the changes in the second act feature a stagehand wearing a headset, which totally breaks the mood.
So… close your eyes during the set changes, and think about what you’ve just seen and heard instead. Fences is a great play being given a great production, and that’s all that counts.
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Gregg T. Daniel
Through September 13
International City Theatre
300 East Ocean Boulevard
Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: 562-436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org