Saturday, March 30, 2019

Palm Beach Dramaworks Stages an Inspired Rendering of August Wilson’s ‘Fences’

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.

Palm Beach 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 PBD’s productions with a vision for their excellence and relevancy to our lives and then selects a cast to work with its talented technical crew. 

John Archie, Lester Purry
Here the cast are all accomplished actors dedicated to the works of August Wilson, among the greatest of American playwrights.  Many have played in several Wilson plays, often in the same role.  Although just beginning its run, Fences’ cast 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.  There is an element of “every-man” in the universality of the themes.  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.   

This is no easy task as the span of the play’s eight years is panoramic and emotionally consuming.  And 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.  In so doing he impacts the lives of all in his orbit.  And like many of us, he is wrestling with his own mortality, symbolized by his imaginary encounters with death, building a fence to metaphorically keep the grim reaper out.

Lester Purry, Karen Stephens

Making his PBD 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 alternates between accepting his lot in life, assuming his responsibilities, and then helplessly allowing his subliminal rage of victimization to rise to the surface.  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, tantamount to being a “free slave.”  His father had one mandate for his son: work.  As Troy recalls, he had taken a 13 year old girl by a creek when he was supposed to be working.  His father finds him and begins to whip Troy with the reins from a mule.  He realizes that his father was chasing him “so he could have the gal for himself.”  They fight but in the end, his father beats the 14 year old Troy senseless.

Purry delivers Wilson’s words passionately to Bono and his son Lyons, allowing the full emotion and poetry of the author to settle upon the audience as this hideous act is at the core of the generational family dysfunctionality:

“When I woke up, I was laying right there by the creek, and Blue…this old dog we had…was licking my face. I thought I was blind. I couldn’t see nothing. Both my eyes were swollen shut. I layed there and cried….The only thing I knew was the time had come for me to leave my daddy’s house. And right there the world suddenly got big. And it was a long time before I could cut it down to where I could handle it.”

In the “cutting down” period he is incarcerated for 15 years, having unintentionally committed murder during a robbery, becomes a star baseball player in the Negro leagues afterwards, 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 and becomes his advice to his sons.  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. 

As one of the best plays of American theatre, each character has real depth and development.  Troy’s wife, Rose, is played by PBD veteran Karen Stephens.  This part was Stephens’ dream role.

She displays her comically loving moments with a heartfelt admiration of Troy, and even when he humiliates her, she accepts her situation.  From Wilson’s stage notes, “She recognizes Troy’s spirit as a fine and illuminating one and she either ignores or forgives his faults, only some of which she recognizes.”

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 (implying that he’s staying with 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.”

Karen Stephens, Lester Purry
Stephens now agonizingly tells her version of the truth: “….I’ve been standing with you! I’ve been right here with you Troy. I got a life too. I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me…. But I held onto you Troy. I held you tighter. You was my husband. I owe you everything I had. Every part of me I could find to give you. And upstairs in that room with the darkness falling in on me… I gave everything I had to try to erase the doubt that you wasn’t the finest man in the world. And where ever you was going… I wanted to be there with you. Cause you was my husband. Cause that’s the only way I was going to survive as your wife. 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!”

Those words, so achingly delivered by Stephens, illustrate the poet in the playwright, some repetition to drive home themes, the rhythm sublime.

Other than Rose, nearest to him is his sidekick, Bono, worshiping Troy, and serving as a sounding board and Troy’s conscience.  PBD’s veteran, John Archie, reprises his recent Florida Repertory Theatre role as Bono, the best friend who 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, towards 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.  Troy bestows his own peculiar kind of love on the one hand and his ever present wrath on the other.  Each is caught up in his own generational perspective, Troy’s formative years being so different than his 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.

Jayla Georges, Warren Jackson
Lyons is his older son from a previous relationship with a woman who left Troy while he was in prison.  Warren Jackson in his PBD 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.  Jackson conveys the absent father theme, like a leitmotif saying “hey Pop why don’t you come on down to the grill and hear me play?”  He knows the answer will always be an excuse and Jackson’s expressions of regret are never lost on the audience. 

Troy and Rose’s biological son Cory is played by Jovon Jacobs, his PBD debut.  Jacobs just finished a highly praised engagement as Walter Lee in New City Players' A Raisin in the Sun.  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.
Lester Purry, Jovan Jacobs Photo by Alicia Donelan
Cory is the depository of all his father’s shattered dreams of sports glory, the generational violence, and Troy’s denial of Cory possibly playing football on a college sports scholarship.  No, Troy insists, he must find a trade to survive in a white man’s world, not accepting that times have changed.  He demands that Cory address him as “sir.”  They finally have a highly charged climactic confrontation:

“CORY:  You talking about what you did for me…what’d you ever give me?
TROY:  The feet and bones! The pumping heart, nigger! I give you more than anybody else is ever gonna give you.
CORY:  You ain’t never gave me nothing! You ain’t never done nothing but hold me back. Afraid I was gonna be better than you. I used to tremble every time you called my name. Every time I heard your footsteps in the house. Wondering all the time…what’s Papa gonna say if I do this?...What’s he gonna say if I do that?...What’s Papa gonna say if I turn on the radio?   And Mama, too…she tries…but she’s scared of you.”

Jacobs delivers these lines with intensity, his eyes flaring with hatred.  Cory knows a secret about his father, his using some of the money Troy’s brother, Gabriel, gets from the government.  Upon revealing this knowledge to his father, their verbal combat escalates into a terrifying physical brawl, stunningly choreographed by Lee Soroko.

Uncle Gabriel, Troy’s brother, is masterly played by Bryant Bentley, also his PBD debut although a veteran of several Wilson plays.  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 plays up the role with a moral purity and a child-like innocence frequently foreshadowing the action.  

Karen Stephens, Bryant Bentley, Lester Purry
He loves Rose, usually bringing her a rose when he visits during his many wanderings through the streets.  Gabriel is a symbol of African-American pain, his screaming incantations at the end of the play a stake in the heart of American racism.  Bentley’s performance is stirring, cutting through to truths about how our society marginalizes people of color or those with disabilities.

There is still another half sibling in the play, Raynell.  We first see her as an innocent baby in Troy’s arms who Rose agrees to raise after Troy’s other woman dies in childbirth, 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 as they plaintively share the refrains of a song their father used to sing:“…I had a dog his name was Blue/You know Blue was mighty true/You know Blue was a good old dog ….”  Ultimately there is forgiveness and hope for the future.  The part of Raynell is alternatingly played by two local elementary school actresses, Jayla Georges and Raegan Franklin.

Scenic design is by Michael Amico who has created a masterpiece set by capturing a slice of a downtrodden Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1950s.  It rises on the PBD stage as a monument to the lives that are so accurately portrayed by Wilson.  There life stubbornly pushes forth from the ashes of the past.  Little patches of grass can be seen beneath the porch, and although two buildings next to the Maxson house are abandoned during most of the play, at the end there is life in them and it is spring.

Resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe nostalgically recreates the working class outfits of the economic and social station of the characters.  Rose, in particular, with her changing housedresses and church going costumes and glorious wig recall with perfection those outfits that live in the memory of the PBD audience.  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.  Dabbled lighting on the buildings show the shadows of trees.  His dramatic lighting at the conclusion enriches the dramatic effect envisioned by Director Hayes.

Sound design by David Thomas focuses on realistic street sounds stage right, a barking dog stage left, and swirling wind as the play transits six years at the end, enhanced by musical blues riffs between scenes as well as some traditional 1950s jazz.  (Wilson himself said the blues influenced his writing more than the work of other playwrights.)  Thomas’ sound and Jackson’s lighting effects join together to offer a consoling conclusion to this incredible piece of work.

James Danford
The importance of the Stage Manager, James Danford, cannot be overstated.  The accuracy of the endless details, from timing of costume changes to cues for the technical crew, to the placement and movement of props between scenes depend on the split second timing controlled by him.  We learned that Danford, at the end of this play’s run, will be retiring after nearly 40 years and 225 shows.  He will be missed, but it is fitting that as in the case with some major leaguers, his retirement comes at the pinnacle of his distinguished career.

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.  PBD’s production of this great play ranks as one of its very best in many seasons of consistent achievements.

Cast Photos by Samantha Mighdoll