Time has enhanced the luster of “Fences.” Dozens of dysfunctional-family dramas have come and gone since its 1987 Pulitzer win, but August Wilson’s tragedy of a working man at war with his family and his own identity circa 1957 stands apart thanks to its distinctive lyricism and theatricality and its unforgettable central character. Sheldon Epps’ carefully detailed revival at the Pasadena Playhouse affirms the play’s singular achievement: It is specific enough to act as a cornerstone of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, yet universal enough to touch a chord in every human heart.
As a protagonist, ex-Negro League slugger-turned-garbageman Troy Maxson (Laurence Fishburne) is every bit as complex and memorable as Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. Like Willy, Troy rages at a world that he believes has done him dirt at every turn, takes out his anger on a sports-obsessed son and betrays a loyal wife who nevertheless memorializes him, in the son’s presence, in a compassionate eulogy.
At the same time, Troy represents an entire generation of postwar males who found the American Dream deferred indefinitely and sometimes permanently — a central theme in Wilson’s work and one dramatized here through the metaphor of an unfinished fence. Any dad who has struggled to give his family a better life while simultaneously resenting those efforts will see in Troy the best and worst features of a particular code of behavior, while any children of such a dad can appreciate the strains of living under that code.
Fishburne may be less terrifying a figure than the original Troy, James Earl Jones, but he is a more recognizable Everyman. He pulls off the neat double act of seeming to react with philosophy and humor to life’s adversities while pacing his yard like a furious caged lion before drinking himself into payday oblivion (Fishburne’s drunk scenes are subtly calibrated and persuasive).
Wilson layers baseball metaphor throughout Troy’s monologues: The man sees Death as “nothing more than a fastball on the outside corner” and warns his son Cory (Bryan Clark) that life puts us into the batter’s box and “you better not strike out.” Credible as an erstwhile athlete, the actor carries off the baseball patois with no trace of self-consciousness.
Fishburne’s Troy is a bit of a fabulist, too, his tall tales punctuated with repeated cries of “Ain’t that right, Bono?” — Troy’s equivalent of “Can I get an amen?” Fishburne shapes the character’s oratory with masterful melody and rhythm that thrum with the energy of the blues.
Act one, arguably the single greatest writing achievement of Wilson’s career, is all arias and mood and buildup. Act two is much richer in incident (and hence even more of a crowd-pleaser), a fact that has a salutary effect on Angela Bassett’s perf as wife Rose. On the sidelines in the first act, she brings fussy artifice to the role, overly relying on unnecessary gestures and vocal tics to establish her presence.
But once Troy confronts her with the details of his betrayal, Bassett’s Rose comes into her own. First incredulous, then bereft, then keening in lament for her own lost life opportunities, she zeroes in on the self-deception that has helped her avoid the truth about the man she married. From that point on Bassett is steely, unmannered and utterly real.
Utterly real throughout are the men of the household, each of whom Wilson uses to embody a different vision of how one may approach life. Kadeem Hardison is definitive as Troy’s older son Lyons, a maddeningly lackadaisical Peter Pan with a passionate commitment to jazz that contrasts starkly with Troy’s broken dreams of big league stardom. Co-worker Jim Bono (Wendell Pierce) lives life as “sidekick to”; Pierce warmly conveys the comfort to be found in following a hero, as well as the sting felt when the hero’s feet of clay destroy the bond.
Clark avoids whininess as Cory, the son whose coming of age is blocked by the psychological fence erected by an unloving parent. He makes a strong impression in each scene, not least at the end, when he finds himself sitting in the same characteristic position as the dad whose shadow he has tried to escape.
Production’s physicality is considerably evocative and the cue pickup is exceptional, all to the credit of director Epps.
But the real acting surprise is Orlando Jones as Troy’s war-wounded brother, who now believes he is the Archangel Gabriel. Unhampered by this symbolic baggage, Jones demonstrates an intensity and emotional accessibility hitherto unhinted-at in a score of movie and TV comedies. Brain-damaged characters usually suffer as thesps go overboard on physical and vocal quirks, but Jones’ Gabriel is a model of expressiveness and precise choices.
Gary L. Wissmann’s set towers over the company, and properly so: As the Maxsons’ one major possession, the house deserves the constant attention it gets. Paulie Jenkins’ delicate lighting and Pierre Dupree’s sound design evoke another, fuller world that lies beyond the Maxsons’ fence, a world of which, the playwright tells us regretfully, some people are destined never to be a part.
First-night curtain rang down with a touching tribute to the three late theater greats who shepherded “Fences” into being: Wilson, producer Benjamin Mordecai and director Lloyd Richards.