PRINCETON, NJ – A striking production of “Fences,” part of August Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle, can be seen at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
In a co-production with the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., the play is directed by Phylicia Rashad. Rashad appeared as Aunt Ester in Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” in 2004 at the McCarter.
The play moves rapidly, with fast paced dialogue, as the writer explores the relationships in an African-American family in the 1950s in Pittsburgh.
The appealing set by John Iacovelli takes you to the back porch of a two story home, where Troy Maxson is building a fence. (His last name is a combination of Mason Dixon.) Esau Pritchett is the volatile, charming and often angry Troy. A major conflict with his son, Cory, shows how he tries to prevent the boy from making the same mistakes he did. It seems that Troy had a shot at major league baseball, but his color prevented him from succeeding. He doesn’t want Cory to accept a football scholarship, which would be his entrée to college.
Bitterness ensues, both because of that rift and a later clash with Troy’s wife, Rose. The play covers several years, with Phil McGlaston as his friend and colleague, Jim Bono. They are both sanitation workers.
Portia is Troy’s warm and loving wife, Rose. G. Alverez Reid plays his brother Gabriel, who suffers from mental illness. Jared McNeill plays Lyons, a son from a previous relationship. And later, Rose and Troy raise Raynell, played with pluck by Taylor Dior. She is actually the daughter of Alberta, who died in childbirth. Troy is the father.
Although much of the play works, there are some gaps if you haven’t read a synopsis of the script ahead of time. It isn’t clear that Lyons is Troy’s son from an earlier relationship nor do we learn enough about Rose and what she had been doing until the age of 30. While Portia exudes a terrific presence in early scenes, her final monologue at the end of Act II falls flat. For some reason, she doesn’t project and turns from the audience, losing much of the power of this final speech.
Pritchett, too, doesn’t quite bring off his long description of growing up in the south and the stealing and prison time he experienced later on.
We never learn why Lyons has ended up as a musician and went to prison and what caused Gabriel’s mental breakdown. Or if we do, they’re passing glimpses.
Still, the actors bring it all off. Reid as Gabriel is refreshingly believable in his confusion and his kind nature. Chris Myers as Cory seems a slight build for a potential football player and spends most of his time pouting.
There’s a certain amount of self-serving focus and some of the dialogue seems circular in revisiting old wounds. Troy feels so sorry for himself that the audience really can’t identify with him. Rose is certainly fed up by the time she learns about Alberta and how Troy needs space and time to "find himself."
Nevertheless, this is overall a well crafted play, with all the technical elements in place. Esosa’s costume designs suit the period and circumstances, Xavier Pierce’s lighting is atmospheric and the sound design by John Gromada enhances time and place.
“Fences” continues through Feb. 9 at the Berlind Theatre in the McCarter Theatre Center. For tickets, call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.