NEW HAVEN — “I once wrote a short story called The Best Blues Singer in the World,” August Wilson reportedly once said, “and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means, other than life is hard.”
All our identity is shaped by the private oceans of our experience. For Troy Maxson, the tragic hero of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Fences, in production at Long Wharf’s C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, his sense of who he is came from a harsh childhood on a sharecropper’s acres in Alabama, where his brutal father raised his 12 motherless children.
He forced Troy to work in the fields chopping cotton from the time he was five years old, so that he grew up illiterate. At age 14, Troy fought back against one of his father’s beatings, and was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he started walking north, and never saw any of his family again, save for his brother Gabriel, who was mentally damaged by a head injury in World War II.
His memory of his father — who might easily have killed him — is conflated with his vision of Death, whom he imagines is out there coming for him. He isn’t scared of either one, any more. He is prepared to fight them to the end.
Yet at the same time, Maxson respects his father for not having deserted the children the way their mother did (when she ran away from her abusive husband). “He fed us, he clothed us, he put a roof over our heads. He accepted his responsibilities. That’s what a man does,” says Maxson.
And therein lies Maxson’s problem: His life is defined by the responsibilities he sees and accepts. He toils at a hateful job as a garbage man, and turns over his pay envelope every Friday evening to his loyal wife, Rose. He puts food on the table, they live in the house he worked to pay for, the furniture is paid for, they have clothes on their backs. All this he learned from the father who beat him. But the only responsibilities he understands are material ones.
What he didn’t learn, because he never experienced it, was how to love his sons. Neither his older son Lyons, from an earlier relationship, nor teenaged Cory, can do anything to please him or earn his respect. Angry because they care about things he considers frivolous (Lyons is a musician, and Cory, a high school football player, is being recruited for a college scholarship), he continually bullies and denigrates them for being lazy and irresponsible. No matter how hard they try, he will give them no encouragement or praise.
Maxson’s situation is all the more painful because when he was younger, he was a genuine star baseball player, who could hit home runs over the stadium fences. But that was when the game was still segregated, and the Negro League, for whom he played, had no money for salaries, and the accomplishments of the players were never included in the record books.
Fences is set in 1957. African-American ball players like Willie Mays are national heroes, but Troy is too old to play. He is too bitter and envious to admit that his son might have more opportunities to succeed as an athlete. Instead he does everything he can to thwart Cory’s chances.
Wilson’s title for this work has multiple levels of meaning. In addition to the ballpark fences that couldn’t contain Maxon’s power back in his prime, there is the board fence he has promised to build for his wife, that gradually begins to surround the yard of their row house over the course of the play. In the most significant sense, it also refers to the emotional barriers Troy has erected between himself and the people he should love but can’t.
I never saw the play when it was on Broadway, but I can’t imagine a stronger, more perfect cast than the one assembled for this production. As Troy Maxson, Esau Pritchett is a towering figure, projecting massive strength, rage, frustration and anguish, as he struggles with the burden of responsibility, which is all he knows how to feel, until at length he is pushed over the edge.
Equally matching him is the actress Portia, who has given everything she had to the marriage, and sacrifices her own dreams to try and keep things intact, because she believes Troy is a man who will be a husband and father who was better and more honorable than her own father. The chemistry between this couple is powerful. When things reach a crisis point, and they each say things which cannot be unsaid, the scene is both harrowing and heartbreaking.
Phil McGlaston does a beautiful job as the easygoing Jim Bono, Maxon’s oldest friend, who has known him since their youthful days in the penitentiary (as a teenager, Troy had turned to a life of crime to support his girlfriend and their son, Lyons), and who has come to emulate his determination to live a responsible life, working for the garbage company and staying faithful to his own wife.
Jared McNeill is convincing as the slick talking Lyons, who grew up without knowing his father (after Troy went to prison), while Chris Myers is angry, frustrated, and stubbornly resentful as Cory, to the point where he is ready to repeat the pattern of fighting his bigger, stronger father and getting beaten senseless.
G. Alverez Reid plays a difficult and moving role as the brain-damaged Gabriel, who imagines himself the angel who must blow the trumpet to open Heaven’s gates. And young Taylor Dior does a fine turn as a six-year-old girl who represents the future.
John Iavocelli’s scenic design— a beautifully detailed representation of a Pittsburgh row house and yard, complete with a large tree — underscores the social realism of the play, which is not about race, although race has certainly played a factor in limiting Maxson’s opportunities. Rather it is an insightful portrayal of a culture, that while not always represented in the record books, is rich in spirit and strength.
In some ways, thematically, Fences brings to mind Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Certainly the final plea by Willy Loman’s wife (“Attention must be paid”) is a fitting comment on the life of Troy Maxson. Wilson’s characters are less abstract, however, and easier to care about, than the Loman family. There is a subtle difference between a very good play and a great one. Personally, I think Fences is a great one, and I recommend that you go see it while you can.
(Performances continue to December 22. Visit LongWharf.org for full curtain and ticket details and reservations.)