Theatre Review: Short North Stage Does Right by August Wilson’s Fences
Fences might be the greatest American play of the 20th century and, with a lot of stiff competition, I think is August Wilson’s masterpiece. It’s a perfect choice for the centerpiece of Short North Stage’s August Wilson Festival and the opening of SNS’s 2016-2017 season. Their production, directed by Mark Clayton Southers, while not without flaws, is a handsome, finely-wrought take on this classic.
My desire to not reveal many plot twists may seem odd for a Pulitzer-winning play but sitting in that darkened theater I saw people gasp just like I did when I first read Fences in High School and as in the Broadway revival I saw a handful of years ago. Troy Maxson (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) is one of the greatest tragic figures in theatre, on par with King Lear or Macbeth. A man who left his horrible father and the terrible South and reinvented himself, first as a petty criminal when there were no jobs, then as a Negro League baseball player people still talk about with awe, and, finally, galvanized by the love of Rose (Rita Gregory), as a provider and upstanding citizen. We meet Troy in full “lion in winter” mode, 18 years into his relationship with Rose, working as a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the late ’50s as the world is starting to crack in ways good and bad.
Troy’s well-founded belief that the white man isn’t ready to let him or his get ahead blinds him to a rare chance for his son, 17-year-old Cory (Taylor Moss), to go to college on a football scholarship. There’s also an edge of anger, a willful blindness that makes Cory’s accusation that “You just don’t want me to be better than you,” ring true. The tragedy of Troy is how hard he’s worked all his life but still couldn’t get even quite this far without selling out people he loves and who love him.
There are two brother relationships here that throw the primary Troy/Rose dynamic into relief. One with his best friend of many years, Jim Bono (Victor D. Little), who Troy met in prison and serves as a sounding board, a reflection, the sad surpassing of someone you grew up idolizing, and a conscience. Bono highlights Troy’s endless charisma and the galvanizing force Rose has been. “When you picked Rose… that was the first time I knew you had any sense. I said, ‘My man Troy knows what he’s doing… I’m gonna follow…” Little is a marvel of sly comic timing; a foil to Abdul-Rashid’s virtuosic performance that necessarily steps back a little but never lets the audience forget he’s the one person other than Rose who can bring Troy down.
The other, more heartbreaking, is his relationship with his biological brother, Gabriel (Lawrence Evans). Permanently brain damaged in WWII, Gabe’s never-enough Government money comes up again and again. Evans’ perpetual terror that “Troy’s mad at me” is pitched perfectly, stirred into his broad humor in a subtle performance that surprises again and again. Still wearing the remnants of the pride he had and the way the world destroys some people worse than others, his dog-tags, but also adorned with a bent trumpet recalling his namesake Gabriel. Gabe is a harbinger of judgment day and Evans’ innate strength both sells that and hides it when he has to. His final scene had me in tears like a child.
The cruelty of fathers and sons come up again and again. Troy’s grown child, Lyons (Bryant Bentley), comes around for money, trying to find a way that’s less back-breaking but making the same mistakes a younger Troy did and still bearing a chip on his shoulder from Troy’s absence when he was a child. After an equally stunning turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Bentley again lights up the stage whenever he appears, fielding everything thrown at him, reorienting its spin, and returning it – his reactions during Troy’s horrific story about his father give the scene a more nuanced shading. Moss’ Cory is played as an uncanny combination of Troy and Rose, exactly as it should be. Moss sometimes disappears on stage, there are moments of shakiness in his performance, but when he’s clicking, he soars.
There were times I felt Rita Gregory’s Rose painted her in a more diminished light than I’m used to. It seems as though it takes the bulk of the first act for her to get a head of steam to assert this character as an equal, as someone who chose Troy not just the other way around. But her climactic speeches still punch hard in the chest, and her heartbreak is the most vibrant in the play. Of course, none of this works without a Troy who makes the audience sit on the edge of our seats, enthralled, even rooting for him as he does some pretty horrible things. With two exceptions, he’s in every single scene. This production outdoes itself there – Mujahid Abdul-Rashid is a shining sun who makes people glow in his presence and makes the world of the play feel like it extends for miles. Slipping between a broken man, deeply believing his excuses but not letting himself off the hook more than anyone else, and the giant he was in his youth, submerged but not dead, watching him is like looking at a prize fighter. Troy’s battle with death feels physical and hyperreal throughout this play. Abdul-Rashid and Gregory have a terrific, sexy chemistry and a give and take that, at its best, rings truer to long-term relationships than anything I can remember seeing on a stage.
Southers direction is just about perfect. The huge, gorgeous set designed by Edward Carignan is a backdrop that perfectly sets the gritty reality of the Pittsburgh we knew but with a mythic, larger than life sense. There were a couple of stilted beats early on in the first act, and it felt like the production was thrown a bit by the lack of laughs from the audience early. But when it found its rhythm, it took off. Some technical problems dulled the impact more than I would have liked. Sound, often the bete noire of that gorgeous theater, is particularly rough this go-round. The first introduction, the boisterous interplay between Troy and Bono, feels muted, audience members straining to hear. That quietness got better but still plagued the performance I saw. The bigger technical stumbling block was the scene changes. Some of these scenes should follow immediately on one another but every time the stage when dark it felt like minutes passed, killing the momentum and forcing the audience to re-establish almost every time.
Those quibbles aside, this is one of the great plays done very, very well. No one with an interest in theatre, modern art, or culture should miss this landmark event.
See Fences, part of the August Wilson Festival presented at Short North Stage, Thursdays through Sundays through September 25, 2016. For more information, visit ShortNorthStage.org.