Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Second Review of Fences

TCR - Troy Maxson (Doug Jackson) is building a fence. He is building it to protect his home and family from the harsh and prejudiced world of Pittsburg in 1957. On a more personal level, he is building it to teach his son Cory (Bradon M. McDaniel) the value of hard work. At the core of the matter, however, he is building it simply because his wife told him to. Rose Maxson (Janie M. Jones-Adams) desperately needs a structure to hem in the restless spirits of her husband and son. As Troy’s friend Bono (Kobi Reese) says, “some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.” It is a lesson central to August Wilson’s Fences. I’m already familiar with this lesson but I didn’t learn it from a dramaturge, a sociologist or even a landscape architect: I learned it from children.

As part of TCR’s outreach program, schoolchildren across Iowa were asked the question “What does a fence mean to you?” Their responses are displayed in the lobby at TCR Lindale. I am struck by the stark honesty but also the diversity of these young artists. In a multi-media painting, a woman sits behind a small wire fence, tagged with labels that accuse her of otherness: “Race,” “Sexuality,” “Class,” etc. A student explains in an essay the difficulty of assimilating into a public school after a lifetime of home schooling. A poem relates a memorable lesson: when Grandpa built a fence to keep out two-legged thieves, he ended up keeping in the four-legged thief ransacking the garden!

TCR’s Fences does its part to break down another barrier: it is the theatre’s first production to feature an entirely African-American cast. This fact helps to explain why we don’t see enough August Wilson plays; a play calling for seven black actors of specific ages is a challenge to cast. That said, Fences is not simply a black play, nor is it a play about racism. Racism is a departure point; though his skin color kept Troy Maxson from playing major league baseball in the days before Jackie Robinson, the play opens with him fighting a battle against race discrimination amongst Pittsburg’s garbage collectors—and winning. Fences, like any of Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle” plays (a series of plays examining the African-American experience throughout the twentieth century, decade by decade), deals with the sense of alienation common among people living in a country slow to let go of its racism. It also deals with more universal themes—passion and responsibility, families and fathers, philosophy and hypocrisy.

A fenced-in area can represent a rigid way of thinking. In dismissing his older son’s musical talent and in chiding him for not working, Troy deepens the gap between them. In trying to protect his younger son from the institution that rejected him, he drives the boy to the other side of the fence, making him a man at great cost. In the end, Troy Maxson’s fence is built, but he is alone inside of it. He must face his demons in isolation.

This is lofty stuff. It is no wonder Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1987. It is a wonderful play, one that needs to be seen; a perfect parting gift to the late Audrey Linge-Ovel, founder of the Linge Series.

Jackson does seem to struggle at times with the weight of the role. He is charming as Maxson, especially when telling the fantastic stories that help characterize him. He plays the confrontational scenes with dignity and passion. The blocking seems to be muddied at times, however, and especially during the scenes with Rose, the action seems to go in circles and objective work is often unclear. Jones-Adams, who plays Rose, seems to have trouble connecting with the other actors at times, and noticeably stumbles over lines. The energy and commitment pushes us through these lapses, however. Wilson’s text flows like a river, and it can be difficult to hold on over the rapids. The actors trust the text and know the story, so they carry us on to drier land.

And ultimately, salvation. Vershawn Ashanti Young is evocative and mesmerizing as Gabe, the WWII veteran who suffers from brain injuries. He is a divine fool, a character type common to Wilson’s plays. He believes he is the Archangel Gabriel; he even carries around a battered trumpet and chases “hellhounds” in the shape of neighborhood troublemakers. Fenced out of the community both by his race and his mental illness, Gabe is under the protection of his brother Troy, and is finally charged with putting Troy’s troubled soul at rest. Young’s portrayal is comic at times, but is far from cartoonish: the Maxsons’ damaged angel fills the stage with dignity and grace.

The costumes do their job well; they transport one to the specific place and time and aid in telling the story. The set is very realistic and believable, but seems to be far too large in the earlier, more relaxed scenes (one is very conscious of the open space between Rose and Troy, for instance), but director Leslie Charipar makes great use of this space later in the show. The lighting design is quite good, despite some technical glitches on opening night.

So what does a fence mean to you? It means you should head down to TCR while you still have a chance to see a play by one of America’s greatest playwrights lovingly handled by one of Cedar Rapids’ most passionate directors.

--James Trainor

James recently graduated from Cornell College with a Bachelor of Special Studies in English and Theater. He has also acted and directed for Stage Left Theater in Cedar Rapids.

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