Hartford Stage. Directed by Jonathan Wilson. With Wendell Wright as Troy. Opened January 11, 2007.
A stunningly good revival of this Pulitzer Prize play. Wendell Wright is a nearly mesmerizing presence, and the supporting cast is unexceptionably strong. August Wilson is a kind of prose poet of the theatre, with a fine ear and a talent amounting to genius for showing us a character completely immersed in a “circumstance” (to use a word Troy, the central character himself, uses) that is simultaneously a situation of his own making and one symbolic of the American black man’s plight in a particular place (almost always inner-city Pittsburgh) and time (a given decade or so in the last century).
Wilson lived just long enough to complete his planned series of ten plays describing the progress of the black community in America. Somehow, I had never read Fences, though it has been on my shelf for a good while. I had always thought that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was Wilson’s best effort, among the plays I knew. I still think highly of it, but now I believe that Fences is Wilson’s quintessential play.
This is a play about fences of various kinds: fences designed to keep things in and keep other things out. No accident, then, that Troy Maxson has a couple of sawhorses in his backyard and a supply of planks. They are hardwood planks, not the soft pine that his friend Jim Bono says would be good enough. Eventually, Troy completes the fence that now encloses the world that is all he’s got. But by then he has had a terribly violent clash with his younger son Cory, who wants to emulate his father’s experience as a sometime baseball player — Cory has the opportunity for a college baseball scholarship, a chance that his father completely undermines because he had such an unhappy experience in sports himself. And by this time his elder son, Lyons, who lives elsewhere with a girlfriend who supports him with her menial job at the hospital and who sees himself as a promising jazz musician, has, following his father’s criminal footsteps, had a hard brush with the law and is serving time in a halfway house.
In other words, Troy’s fences represent a futile effort to come to terms with who he is and what he needs to be secure, protecting himself against the threat of change. In fact, Troy undermines his own security by being unfaithful to Rose, his wife of eighteen years, and fathering a child with a woman, Alberta, who makes him feel good about himself, makes him laugh, but who dies in childbirth, leaving the daughter, Raynelle, for Troy and the reluctant but ultimately compliant Rose to rear. The year is 1957, except for the last scene, set eight years later, in 1965, on the day of Troy’s funeral. Cory returns, now a corporal in the U. S. Marines, in dress uniform, for the moment refusing to attend his father’s funeral but being turned around in this by Rose, who in a wonderful speech reconciles Cory (and herself — and us) to an understanding of who this man was, where he came from, what attraction he had for Rose, and what his life ultimately means. (The speech corresponds to the speech in Death of a Salesman: “Attention must finally be paid to this man.”)
Wilson keeps us in the theatre for nearly three hours. There is a lot to tell, and he tells it with faultless skill and timing and without a false note.
It is time for the Library of America to get busy and bring out a two-volume edition of the ten plays, now that we know they cannot be added to, and now that we know how important, pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful these plays truly are.