With the protagonist in “Fences,” Troy Maxson, August Wilson created a vivid, conflicted portrait of fatherhood that compares to the characters of Lear or James Tyrone in its compassion and emotional complexity. Troy is far from a saint, but he’s trying to live up to his responsibilities instead of running away from them. This role of a basically decent, dutiful man who nonetheless occasionally does unforgivable things is a challenge for any actor, as is the play itself. The staging at the Odyssey Theater, although not perfect, is ultimately a strong and moving show, centered by Charlie Robinson’s potent perf.
Troy (Robinson), once a talented ballplayer in the Negro Leagues and now a garbage man, is struggling to be a good husband to Rose (Elayn J. Taylor) and father to Cory (Tjader France), but in the racist America of 1957 he finds his life almost too difficult to bear. He tries to reject the brutal legacy of his own father, yet finally is cruel to his wife and his son, both times guided or misguided by love.
Director Jeffrey Hayden highlights the comedic aspects of the piece — who knew there were so many laughs in “Fences”? — but he displays a sure hand for wrenching drama as well. His habit of darkening the lights for each serious monologue is a bit heavy-handed, but it gets the job done by focusing on the performers.
Robinson is fantastic as Troy, believable at all times, from being funny and loving with Rose to cold and scarifying with Cory. His rendition of Troy’s final confrontation with his father is primal and stunning, a flood of fear and raw emotion. It’s a thoroughly assured take on a difficult role, and Robinson knocks the ball out of the park.
Although Taylor is good as the matter-of-fact yet kind Rose, her anger with and fear of Troy in the play’s latter half seem a bit subdued. France and Jonathan T. Floyd are fine as Troy’s two very different sons, and William Stanford Davis is subtle and delightful as Troy’s friend and “follower,” Bono. Dig Wayne, unfortunately, isn’t too convincing as Troy’s mentally damaged brother, Gabriel.
Thomas Brown’s set design for Troy and Rose’s home is more suggestive than detailed, but it works. Luke Moyer’s lighting occasionally leaves the actors standing in the dark while their spotlights hit empty stage, and Peter A. Romano’s sound design seems to consist mainly of one effective shivery noise used behind most of the dramatic monologues.