“Fences” Goes Deep
August Wilson’s Fences is hitting it out of the Packer – that is, the Tina Packer Stage at Shakespeare & Company, where it is playing in a perfectly cast, incisively directed, and thrillingly played production until 8/27.
Fences, a modern classic, is the sixth in Wilson’s ten plays “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which chronicled Black life in America, primarily in Pittsburgh, one for each decade in the twentieth century. It tells the story of a middle-aged garbage man in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1957, Troy Maxson (“Ranney”), who missed out on his opportunity to play major league baseball, and his bitterness affects all those around him.
Fences were written in 1985 and won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play plus Best Direction for Lloyd Ricards, Best Actor for James Earl Jones, and Best Actress for Mary Alice. It was made into a film in 2016 following a 2010 revival which won Tony Awards for both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and received four Academy Award nominations, with Davis winning for Best Actress.
Troy Maxson is a monumental part. He holds court in his backyard and rules as surely as any monarch who has trafficked on the Tina Packer stage. “Ranney” makes the most out of his tipsy raconteur, who can be alternatively boastful, resentful, hysterical, and frightening. Few actors can play the extraordinary range of Maxson’s role and not overplay one aspect or the other, and “Ranney” walks the razor’s edge expertly and effortlessly. He is funny enough to attract everyone onstage to want to spend time with him and terrifying enough in his quietest moments to inspire his son’s lifelong hatred and resentment of him. He is the soul of the play, and every relationship is individually specified and illuminated through his actions giving his fellow castmates their hallowed place.
Ella Joyce as Troy’s wife Rose, gives as good as she gets and can welcome you with food on the table, a loving kiss of greeting to Troy’s son of his first marriage, Lyons (L. James), or scald the earth in one of Wilson’s most blistering monologues. Ja’Quan Malik Jones is thoroughly winning as the athletic son Corey who both challenges and loves his father but needs to overcome the lifelong scars to move on.
Troy’s co-worker Bono (Kenneth Ransom) is a great foil and straight man to Troy’s routines and is willing to go along with his antics for miles, even laughing off Troy’s pursuit of a promotion to driver despite the fact that Troy doesn’t have a driver’s license. Still, there is one bridge Bono will not cross nor accept – Troy’s indiscretion and Ransom make him great company by playing both sides fully believably.
Lyons (L. James) breezes onstage every Friday to borrow money from his father, but James is the smoothest cat onstage and irresistible to all onstage and off… except for Troy. I love L. James’ voice! Brian D. Coats as Grady Maxson and Ashley McCauley Moore as Raynelle Maxson fill out the cast and family, both striking arresting grace notes in the final minutes of the play: Moore as a lovely shining beacon of hope and Coats with a furious, joyful gesture that is astonishing.
Christopher V. Edwards does a masterful job helming the first Wilson play to grace Shakespeare & Co.’s stages, from his blocking when he brings the characters close, downstage on the thrust, and to his orchestration of these seven distinctive voices in all the colors they possess to create such a great symphony. The set by Jon Savage and lit by Aja M. Jackson is a wonderful ramshackle, colorful mix of door and window frames, color, and photographs – you could spend all night looking at the dimensions, textures, and depth hidden and revealed much like the play itself. The costumes, scrappy and snazzy, are by Nia Safarr Banks.
Fences is a play set in the middle of the last century when the golden age of Broadway was represented by the plays Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire. This brilliant production that this talented company has poured its heart into makes a convincing case that it is an American masterpiece of the same stature and will be revered and revived as often and as lovingly as those titles.
Fences plays at the Tina Packer Stage at Shakespeare and Company through 8/27. Tickets: www.shakespeare.org or 413-637-3353