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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

"Death ain't nothin' but a fast ball in the outside corner." — Troy
Esau Pritchett as Troy Maxson, (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
It is quite probable that any one of the plays by the late dramatic chronicler of the African-American experience in the 20th century August Wilson will seem even better than the last time you saw it. That means that no matter if you have already seen the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winner Fences either during its original Broadway run or during its last Broadway revival in 2010, the production now at the McCarter Theatre Center under the direction of Phylicia Rashad, reaffirms it as one of Wilson's best. It has also proven to be his most popular and successful. Set in the 50s, it is the fourth (it followed Seven Guitars ) in the cycle of 10 plays with each dramatizing an episode during every decade.

This unashamedly melodramatic play is certainly among the more emotionally stirring, although I find myself thinking this about every Wilson play right after I see it. Returning to the McCarter. Rashad is no stranger to the Wilson canon whether as a director (many regional productions) or as an actor (she played 285 year-old Aunt Ester in the McCarter'sGem of the Ocean in 2005). She has a firm grip on the content and context of this play that comes to the McCarter following an engagement at the Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut

One of the more conventionally structured of Wilson's plays, Fences focuses on a low-income, inner-city family during the 1950s. Ex-con Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett) is a strong, belligerent, prideful trash collector who has forged a home and an insular world of dignity for himself and his family. Through his combustible and complex relationship with his best friend and one-time jail-mate Jim Bono (fine acting by Phil McGlaston), Troy harbors memories of himself as a promising slugger in the Negro League before he scrapped his youthful dreams for a path that seemed to be the only one for an impoverished black man.

I have vivid memories of both James Earl Jones in the original 1987 production and Denzel Washington in the 2010 Broadway revival. But Pritchett steps right up to the plate to give a compelling, persuasive performance as the blustery, inflexible patriarch who questions whether the fence he is putting up around his home and small piece of property is meant to keep people out or to keep his family in. Pritchett unquestionably anchors this production through the sheer force of a portrayal that grows in intensity and sensitivity from one harrowing scene to the next. Without a doubt, he stands tall alongside the renowned actors who preceded him in this awesome role.

Saddled with lengthy, difficult to navigate monologues that would tax a less magnetic actor, Pritchett's charm and machismo keeps us glued to every word. This is particularly evident in the way he manipulates the feelings of his not-to-be-coddled wife Rose, as played by Portia. Though having (or using) only one name, Portia shows us many sides of Rose's personality, as well as the options of a devoted wife whose love is suddenly compromised by her husband's infidelity.

G. Alverez Reid is poignant as Troy's brain-damaged brother Gabriel who earns little more than Troy's passively fraternal concern. Jared McNeill makes a fine and genial impression as Troy's oldest mostly out-of-work musician son Lyons who stops by every Friday for a handout.

But the real dramatic conflict comes in Troy's relationship with his younger son Cory (a vigorous and impassioned performance by Chris Myers), an ambitious, talented high school senior who has been singled out by a football team recruiter. Mistrusting the white world, and unable to accept the possibility that Cory may succeed where he failed, Troy alienates Cory with his unyielding behavior. Filled with psychological hang-ups and fixated with an inbred fear of being exploited and victimized by whites, Troy refuses to see how changing times are offering his son an opportunity that he never had.

Pritchett has found a way for us to see through Troy's irrational outbursts and tirades and also see deeply into this complex man. Unwilling to channel love to his younger son, unable to restrain himself from being unfaithful to Rose, and incapable of finding peace in his own heart, Troy is as unsentimentally conceived as he is poignantly real. Except for Wilson's penchant for more-is-more and for a resolution that seems awkwardly tacked on, Fences is dramatic theater at its grandest.

John Iacovelli's setting — the back of a two story brick home, dirt backyard with its one big tree — is evocative of the Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood in 1957. It's where the extended Maxson family has learned to confront demons as fearlessly as they also courageously reconsider their dreams.

Fences By August Wilson
Directed by Phylicia Rashad

Cast:Essau Pritchett (Troy Maxson), Phil McGlaston (Jim Bono), Portia (Rose), Jaret McNeill (Lyons) G. Alverez Reid (Gabriel), Chris Myers (Cory), Taylor Dior (Raynell)
Scenic Design: John Iacovelli
Costume Design: Esosa
Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce
Sound Design: John Gromada
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ
(609) 258 - 2787
Tickets ($52.00)
Performances: Tues to Thurs 7:30pm; Fri 8:00pm; Sat 3:00pm & 8:00pm; Sun 2:00pm & 7:30pm
From 01/10/14 Opened 01/17/14 Ends 02/09/14
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 01/17/14
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