Review: Dramaworks stages inspired rendering of August Wilson’s ‘Fences’

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
March 31, 2019

It begins sweetly, the easy jousting of two old friends, Jim Bono and Troy Maxson, so innocently that the audience is quickly ushered into their lives. Although these are two garbage men returning at the end of a work week in 1957 Pittsburgh, a bottle of gin to share, and are African-Americans, we identify with the universality of their banter. Troy has dutifully brought his weekly pay to give to his wife, Rose, and enjoys spinning yarns to his appreciative listener, Bono. So begins August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” and Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production which steadily builds to a cathartic climax.

Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director Bill Hayes, also the director of “Fences,” has undertaken to make this production a signature piece in his company’s long history of triumphs. He picks Dramaworks productions with a vision for their excellence and relevancy to our lives and then selects a cast to work with its talented technical crew. 

Here, the cast is all accomplished actors dedicated to the works of August Wilson, among the greatest of American playwrights. Although just beginning its run, the cast of “Fences” has already come together as a family. Their performances soar, unforgettable, mining the heart of Wilson’s poetic dialogue and the African-American experience many of us can only imagine. Here we get to viscerally walk the walk. It is enlightening and heart-wrenching.

Hayes takes the play to the very edge of Wilson’s intent, wanting Troy’s vulnerabilities and his humanity to be on full display. He underscores the many comedic aspects of Wilson’s first act, disarming the audience, leaving us all the more susceptible to the dramatic fire kindling beneath that will blaze into full fury. Hayes saves his most emphatic directorial statement until the end with a touch of magical realism but throughout, the director’s vision coupled with his love of the play and cast is tangible and affecting. 

From left, John Archie, Lester Purry and Karen Stephens. Photo by Alicia Donelan

This is no easy task as the span of the play’s eight years is panoramic and emotionally consuming. Its main character, Troy Maxson, is a conundrum of a character, full of tragic flaws and yet possessing traits of nobility along with a disarming honesty. He is larger than life, an inherently good man who has been seriously damaged by his father, poverty and the disadvantages of his race, and deterministically visits the sins of the father upon his sons.

Making his Dramaworks debut, Lester Purry’s portrayal of Troy Maxson is seismic, and when he is on stage it’s as if all the oxygen is taken out of the room by his performance – his forceful voice reaching one’s very solar plexus. He is intransigent about his beliefs and can be a terrifying bully, particularly toward his son Cory. 

It all starts with Troy’s own father who was a failed sharecropper. As a 14-year-old, Troy set out on his own after his father beats him senseless. He is soon incarcerated for 15 years having unintentionally committed murder during a robbery. Afterward, he becomes a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, marries Rose and becomes a garbage man in Pittsburgh. When Troy says “you got to take the crookeds with the straights,” it is a baseball metaphor which has grown into how he now looks at the world. Yet there is always the resentment that he was denied the chance to play baseball in the major leagues, “born too early” to break the color line. 

Troy’s wife, Rose, is played by Dramaworks veteran Karen Stephens. She displays her comically loving moments with a heartfelt admiration of Troy, and even when he humiliates her, she accepts her situation. 

From left, Lester Purry and Jovon Jacobs. Photo by Alicia Donelan

Her performance intensifies when Troy confesses that he’s been having an affair. In fact, he’s going to be a father. He rationalizes that this relationship is separate from his love for Rose, saying this other woman makes him feel special, and that for 18 years (with Rose) he feels like he’s “been standing in the same place.”

But Rose has her version of the truth: “… I’ve been standing with you! I’ve been right here with you Troy … You always talking about what you give … and what you don’t have to give. But you take, too. You take … and don’t even know nobody’s giving!”

Other than Rose, nearest to him is his sidekick Bono, worshiping Troy and serving as a sounding board and Troy’s conscience. Dramaworks’ veteran John Archie articulates the thematic heart of the play “some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to all of you. She loves you.”

Archie wrings out all the emotion portraying Bono, who, toward the end of the play, comes by one last time to give Troy a loving tip-of-the-hat to acknowledge that “[you] learned me.” By this time, Troy is a very lonely man finding consolation in his gin.

Much of the play’s drama focuses on Troy’s relationship with his two sons. His fatherly skills rise only to the point of wanting his sons to find “responsible work,” expecting they abandon their own dreams. But in his heart he simply does not want them to turn out like he did.

Lyons is his older son from a previous relationship with a woman who left Troy while he was in prison. Warren Jackson in his Dramaworks debut plays his part with a benign, arms-length acceptance of his father. There is some playful back and forth between Troy and Lyons, his son always borrowing some money from Troy, his father holding that over his head, admonishing him to get a real job – not as a part-time musician. 

From left, Karen Stephens and Bryant Bentley. Photo by Alicia Donelan

Troy and Rose’s biological son Cory is played by Jovon Jacobs in his Dramaworks debut. He has an explosive relationship with his father, Jacobs showing his character’s developing strength of conviction, distain for, and then willingness finally to challenge his alpha male father. His is another bravura performance, seething with heart-hurt fury.

Uncle Gabriel, Troy’s brother, is masterly played by Bryant Bentley, also his Dramaworks debut. Having suffered a mentally disabling head injury in WW II, he is now convinced that he will play his broken Gabriel’s trumpet to open heaven’s gates one day. Bentley brings a child-like innocence to the role, frequently foreshadowing the action. He is a symbol of African-American pain, his screaming incantations at the end of the play drive a stake in the heart of American racism. 

Another half sibling, Raynell, is alternately played by two local elementary school actresses, Jayla Georges and Raegan Franklin. We first see her as an innocent baby in Troy’s arms and then as a delightful young girl at the play’s end. Raynell’s youthful innocence has a pivotal role in helping Cory get past his blind anger.

Michael Amico’s scenic design is a masterpiece set capturing a slice of a downtrodden Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1950s. It rises on the Dramaworks stage as a monument to the lives that are so accurately portrayed by Wilson. 

Resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe nostalgically recreates the working-class outfits of the economic and social station of the characters. His usual attention to detail enhances the realism of the play.

George Jackson’s lighting design bathes most of the production in full light with an occasional dimming spot at scenes’ end. His dramatic lighting at the conclusion enriches the dramatic effect envisioned by director Hayes.

Sound design by David Thomas focuses on realistic street sounds and musical blues riffs between scenes. (Wilson himself said the blues influenced his writing more than the work of other playwrights.) 

With “Fences,” Wilson has written an ode to his protagonist, befitting his literary beginnings as a poet. The language is rich, rhythmical and through the prism of the African-American experience. Dramaworks’ production of this great play ranks as one of its very best in many seasons of consistent achievements.

“Fences” runs through April 21. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.

For the full version of this review, click here. To read more reviews by Robert Hagelstein, as well as his writings covering topics including business, literature and politics, go to lacunaemusing.blogspot.com.

Pictured above: From left, Lester Purry and Karen Stephens. Photo by Alicia Donelan

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