Fences is arguably one of the greatest plays by one of America’s best playwrights: August Wilson. Timely and powerful, it is a play that interrogates ideas of race, sex, and economics in order to examine how they affect the Maxsons, the family at the centre of the play, the African-American community, and the country at large. It won Wilson the first of his two Pulitzers, and shows us the poet-playwright at the height of his powers.
Phylicia Rashad’s revival demonstrates the play’s brilliance, in that it still shines through, even in a production full of problematic performance and directorial decisions. Most of the actors seem to be reciting Wilson’s lines and speeches rather than embodying characters or their relationships, and Rashad’s direction under-emphasizes some of the play’s most critical moments. The result feels more like a demonstration of the play rather than a successful expression of its themes and tensions. Surprisingly for a production that has already had a full run at the Long Warf before transferring the McCarter, it also feels under-rehearsed, as if neither the performers or director have fully embraced the play.
Fences is the 1950s play from his Century Cycle—ten plays, each exploring the African-American experience in a different decade of the twentieth century. The 1950s were the beginning of a time of transition for the United States, and Wilson’s concern in Fences is the degree to which that transition away from a young and fledgling country into a social and economic superpower affects the lives of black families living in his native Hill District of Pittsburgh. Emancipation and the broken promises of Reconstruction are long past, and while the country was ostensibly embracing notions of equality, Wilson looks through a realist lens at the difficulties the Maxson family faced daily.
At the same time, however, Wilson casts the 1950s as a time of transition away from overt oppression and into at least the potential for personal responsibility in one’s own life. Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett) was denied the opportunity to play Major League Baseball when he was younger because of his race, but over the course of the play he does secure himself a promotion at work, becoming the first black driver for the garbage company. Although Troy is deeply suspicious of the football scholarship offered to his son Cory (Chris Myers), it does allow the young man access to college.
In short, things are not great, or even very good, for black families in Wilson’s 1950s, but their lives rely more on personal agency than they ever have before. Troy’s decisions matter, and the trouble he and his family face in the play comes not from oppressive social forces, but from the effects of those decisions. Wilson asks us neither to forgive nor to condemn Troy for his actions, but to understand him as a complicated man with the same human flaws as many others in his position.
Fences requires a strong central presence in Troy and just as powerful performances by those closest to him, in whom he finds challenges to his sense of certainty about his way of life. Rashad’s production lacks this strength. Esau Pritchett does a serviceable job as Troy, at once domineering and affectionate to his wife Rose, occasionally nurturing to his two sons, Cory and Lyons (Jared McNeill, affecting an off-putting caricature of a much older bluesman’s grizzled voice). But both his affection and nurturing seem forced and unnatural.
Part of the reason for that stiffness is that none of Troy’s family members prove to be much of a match for Troy. Father-son tension is a central factor in Fences, with Cory in particular starting to find his own voice and to standup to his overpowering father. That is a difficult effect to achieve with a diminutive actor who reverts quickly to tears in the play’s most tense moments.
The clash between Troy and Cory that closes act one is a time for Cory to gird his strength and look his father in the eye in order to show budding manhood—however unsure he may be about it—not a time for petulant whimpering. Similar problems affect Portia’s Rose. Rose loves and nurtures Troy, but she was 30 years old when they met so she spent much of her early life developing the strength and independence of a single woman. Yet she too dwindles into a hysterical bout of tears at the precise moment that the play calls for Rose at her most defiantly resolute in the face of a painful revelation. Portia also seems about 10 years too young and struggles to invoke the lifetime of struggle and insight that has come to define Rose.
Even taking these flaws into account, Fences manages to strike a number of chords. But a steadier directorial hand would have been helpful. Glossing over much of the play’s complexity and depth, Rashad’s production is tepid take on a true American classic.