That ‘80s Show
by Chris Arnott | Dec 6, 2013 12:24 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater
In 1987, two theater productions from New Haven’s dynamic, world-class regional theater scene moved to Broadway and won Tony Awards. One was August Wilson’s Fences, which had been developed at Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and then had its world premier production at the Yale Rep. The other was Long Wharf Theater’s revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
Twenty-five years later, it’s the Long Wharf that is doing Fences, on a set which could serve equally well (better, even) as the set for All My Sons. The whole production, in fact, is more in keeping with a mid-20th melodramatic style than the distinctive, visceral yet lyrical modern theatrical style which August Wilson brought forth in the 1980s.
In the ‘80s, these plays of Arthur Miller and August Wilson seemed worlds apart. Fences felt both classical, with its Greek-tragic overtones and grand poetic cadences, and abstract, with its Spartan backyard set and jagged sense of time. Its plot doesn’t unfold in a linear way; new characters suddenly appear, and many curveballs are thrown in a play that’s already rife with baseball metaphors.
Fences may be set in the 1950s — the midpoint of August Wilson’s vaunted ten-play “Century Cycle” — but, to my mind, it has always represented a creative departure from Arthur Miller and his issue-laden ilk. Wilson’s plays cover subjects that fall outside any earlier social-drama stereotypes. They access the spiritual and supernatural, often ending in brilliant bursts of heavenly light.
Interesting, then, to see a production that takes a once-defiant, maverick script and shows how neatly it could be set into mainstream theater standards. Is this a good thing? Judging from opening night, Long Wharf’s Fences is clearly a crowd-pleaser. But by forcing a balance of light and dark, and by relying on too-obvious blocking (including lots of passive reaction shots from the cast when watching each other emote), the production sacrifices a lot of surprises, nuances and creative leaps.
In August Wilson plays, great monologues often erupt unexpectedly from what at first seem like minor events. In this staging, some of those speeches remain buried, victims of too-quick pacing. There’s also an attempt to make the whole show seem lighter and brighter than it has any reason to be. Things get darker and more leisurely for the second act, thank goodness, but there are still plenty of unnecessary micromanaging of a play which has earned the right to ramble.
The mainstreaming of Fences has been happening for a while now. Where it was a grizzled, dumpy, obnoxious James Earl Jones who played the central role of bitter 53-year-old Pittsburgh garbageman Troy Maxson in the original mid-1980s Yale Rep and Broadway productions (not to mention the national tour which played New Haven’s Shubert). More recent Troy Maxsons have included Denzel Washington and British comic actor Lenny Henry, both of whom got rave reviews. At the Long Wharf, Troy is embodied by the lean, taut Esau Pritchett. His Troy is weakened by decades of bitterness and by occasionally bouts of drinking, but he’s not physically weak. At the start of the play, which is played here with a bright giddiness that invites the audience to relax and laugh along with the bantering characters, Troy comes off as sensible and clear-headed. It’s only later on that his self-destructive tendencies become apparent. With a mix of vanity, irascibility and vulnerability borne from a lifetime of disappointments, Maxson ultimately destroys himself and nearly brings his family down with him.
But this is not a Job-like story of extraordinary burdens. Wilson’s brilliance as a writer is that he tells an ordinary person’s story, its emphases changing over time from work to family life to mid-life crisis to legacy and self-worth and influence. All of this is tempered by Troy Maxson’s being an African-American who’s had several prime opportunities denied him by a overwhelming white-run world. He played professional baseball before the game was desegregated, for instance, and we hear the agony of his what-might-have-beens. His friends and family remain supportive of this oft-belligerent, frequently surly and abusive man, which in turns sheds a little light on their own compromised existences.
Director Phylicia Rashad is also known as an actress. She played Aunt Ester in the New York production of Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean in 2004 (though not in the play’s Chicago world premiere production a year earlier—let’s give the regional theater origins of all Wilson’s works their due). Rashad treats Fences like a sturdy melodrama, in the same respectful and stagy manner in which she directed Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun at the Westport Country Playhouse a couple of seasons ago. She races the tempo, particularly in the first act, so that the dialogue feels snappy and conversational rather than lyrical and metaphor-laden. She doles out particular areas of the stage to each performer; Troy stays front and center for most of the show, while his wife Rose spends so much of the play in the house/porch background that you might wonder if she’s wearing one of those house-arrest electronic ankle bracelets. As played by the single-named actress Portia, Rose veers from long-suffering to indignant to empowered, but her spatial distance from much of the action means that her withering glances have to be oversized and exaggerated. Troy’s brother Gabriel, who literally lost his mind in World War II, wanders around the others in wide circles. G. Alverez Reid wisely underplays a part which could be offensive to the mentally challenged if made too “crazy.” In a departure just as profound as having Troy played by a lean, athletic type, Troy’s son Cory—hamstrung by his obstreperous pop in his attempts to win a football scholarship—is cast with the short, boyish-looking Chris Myers. This Cory is shown as still being childlike, not as manly as the role is often played. We see him grow up hurriedly, and Myers makes such a transformation believable.
Myers’ work here, in a role that proves in the final scene that even those who’ve had their dreams stolen from them can still find other options for themselves, is the sort of revelation which is worth applauding. Some of the other revelations of this production, particularly that this monster of a modern American social tragedy can be turned into unchallenging old-fashioned melodrama, are more troubling.
The beauty of August Wilson’s Shakespeare-level soliloquoys, his deft use of blues-singing and offhand slang comments to pump up the dialogue, his purposely erratic sequencing of events—time can jump anywhere from a few days to several years between scenes, without warning—can be lost when Fences is given such a conventional presentation. Other things may well be gained, but it’s hard to see exactly what they are.
Fences plays through Dec. 22 on the Long Wharf Theatre’s Claire Tow mainstage, 222 Sargent Dr. The production then moves in January to the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. Tickets are $44.50 to $79.50. (203) 787-4282, www.longwharf.org.
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