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A CurtainUp Review
In this 1950s leg of the cycle, John Beasley, a Wilson veteran, plays principal yapper Troy, and few plays by any playwright depend as much on a single character as Fences does on this ex-con ex-baseball player turned garbage collector. Lucky for us, then, that Beasley speaks Wilson's words so well and so melodically. Troy's tall tales tie him to his sharecropper roots even as they lend him a powerful charisma that almost forgives all his sins.
Almost one of the lessons that Fences hammers home again and again is that we're doomed to repeat the past even though we don't always know it, and that the repetition of past sins is both a blessing and a curse, what defines us and what threatens to destroy us. Wilson loads nearly all the psychological interest in his play in the contradictions, righteous rage, and unforgiveable betrayals of Troy.
To be sure, the relationship between Troy and his wife Rose (the beautiful and long-suffering Crystal Fox) is charming and believable in its turns from affection to exhaustion. And sparks fly when Troy prohibits his son Cory (Warner Miller) from playing football, partly out of envy since Troy never made it to the major leagues in baseball, perhaps because of his advanced age, perhaps because of racism— and partly out of love.
Bellowing, corrosive, loveable, paradoxical Troy, onstage for nearly all two and a half hours, is one of the great roles in American drama. But for all the fire of Beasley's performance, this production is not as moving as it could be.
The storied Kenny Leon, who became Wilson's final collaborator and worked wonders with Phylicia Rashad in Gem of the Ocean, simply doesn't do a lot with some powerful material:. The blocking is static and repetitive, a great many moments of primal conflict, especially in the second act when Rose learns about Troy's affair with another woman, fizzle when they should ignite. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's realistic set and Ann Wrighton's lighting are likewise respectful, proper, okay, just not particularly exciting. This is picture postcard poverty, not the arduously chiseled home of people living through sustained hardship with dignity.
Leon is good with the music of the language and the play sings most when not a lot is going on; notably, when Troy, his buddy Bono (Eugene Lee, who seems like he could be everyone's best friend), and Rose are shooting the breeze in the backyard. There's still work to be done to give the secondary characters flesh, though, and to establish the rhythm of scenes that can turn from nostalgia to threats of murder in an instant.
Wilson writes in a sort of playful realism—strange things can happen, like the appearance of ghosts or the opening of the gates of heaven, without distorting our sense that his world is continuous with ours. We need to be playful with him too while recognizing that he models the life we know. It's probably inevitable that many productions of his work so soon after his death are going to be too respectful and so will not respect him enough, like commemorative stamps of legendary figures. There are moments of greatness in the Huntington production, but not enough spiritedness, not enough risk, and that finally means not enough Wilson.
For more about August Wilson and links to other Wilson plays reviewed at curtainup.com, see out Wilson Backgrounder.