Theater Review: FENCES (Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts)

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by Lynne Weiss on July 25, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


Actors “ranney” and Ella Joyce bring a fresh and warm humanity to Shakespeare and Company‘s excellent and very satisfying production of August Wilson’s Fences, which opened this week at the Tina Packer Playhouse in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts.

Troy Maxson is a character not often included in our representations of U.S. history: one of those who came of age shortly before integration efforts opened the way to more Black people achieving at least some of the dreams that had been deferred for so long. Set mostly in the late 1950s, the play portrays the struggles of Troy, an ex-con and one-time stellar Negro League baseball player who narrowly missed the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues due to segregation, which didn’t change until 1947 with Jackie Robinson. Now, Troy aspires to break a less lofty color barrier: when the play opens, this 53-year-old Pittsburgh garbage collector has filed a complaint with his union because all the garbage truck drivers are white and all the men who lift the trash cans are Black.

The man has had a hard life: in the course of the drama, we learn about the difficult circumstances of his childhood as an abusive sharecropper’s son in the South, so hard in fact that his son Lyons (L. James) cannot believe his father’s account at first. Troy is bitter toward his own father, but in the relating of his father’s shortcomings, he sees the ways that he has replicated those failings. (Troy’s last name, Maxson, is an amalgamation of Mason and Dixon, after the Mason-Dixon line, the name for the imaginary line that separated the slave states from the free states.)

Maxson tries to raise children who will achieve what he could not: “You got to take the crookeds with the straights,” he says. Yet Maxson’s pain leads to tragic outcomes not only for himself, but also for his older son Lyons, his younger son Corey (Jāquan Malik Jones), his daughter Raynell (Ashley McCauley Moore), and especially for his beloved wife Rose. As portrayed by Ella Joyce, Rose is strong and centered, the mediator who protects the other characters from Maxson’s rage, including, to a certain point, Maxson himself.

In the 2016 film adapted from the original 1987 Broadway production, Denzel Washington’s Troy comes across as bitter and mean. Here he is a more sympathetic character, mostly due to “ranney”’s great presence, but also because of a live audience. Despite its tragic elements, there are many humorous moments in this script; somehow, the laughter allows us to feel the tragedy of Troy’s bitterness more deeply. As the astute Director Christopher V. Edwards pointed out in a Berkshire Eagle interview, much of what drives the action of Fences is what hasn’t happened to Troy Maxson.

Every Wilson play I have seen includes a character who has some ability, real or imagined, to communicate with the supernatural or sacred. At times, this character is a source of wisdom; at other times, a threat. In Fences, this role is held by Troy’s brother Gabriel (Brian D. Coats), a veteran who has never recovered from his war injuries; he is both a burden and source of joy in the Maxson household. Co-worker Jim Bono (Kenneth Ransom), who met Troy in prison, is the necessary confidant and advisor  — the man who both admires Troy and challenges him to rise above his weaknesses. “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in,” he warns Troy, when he recognizes that his best friend is endangering his marriage (Troy is having a flame with another woman, Alberta, whom we never meet).

Jon Savage has created a detailed two-story house, porch, and garden that allows the action to move inside and out without any changes to scenery. Aja M. Jackson, Nia Safarr Banks, and Caroline Eng provide light, costume, and sound design.

Under Artistic Director Allyn Burrows, Shakespeare and Company’s production hits the high-water marks of dramatic intensity. The play delivers a kind of polished grit that is unique, compelling, and as thought-provoking as it is emotionally moving. It’s a remarkable achievement, reconfirming Wilson’s place in the theatrical canon.

photos courtesy of Shakespeare and Company

Shakespeare and Company
Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St. in Lenox, MA
July 22-30: Tues-Sun at 7:30; August 1-27: Tues-Sun at 2
ends on August 27, 2023
for tickets ($22 to $72), call 413.637.3353 or visit Shakespeare

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