Long Wharf's Fences Misses a Home Run
By Karen Isaacs
Long Wharf Theater's production of Fences tries valiantly to be worthy of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play but ends up disappointing. Yet the production is worthy of your attention because the play is so very good.
Though much of the blame must be placed on director Phylicia Rashad, she has had a tough act to follow. The brilliant Lloyd Richards directed the world premier at the Yale Rep in 1985; the production starred Mary Alice, Courtney Vance and James Earl Jones. That production went on to Broadway and multiple awards. In 2009 Kenny Leon directed Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in a magnificent production on Broadway which also won multiple awards.
Fences is about father-son relationships a la Miller's classic Death of a Salesman. Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Troy Maxim works as a garbage man to support his wife and son Cory. Now in his 50s, Troy was a talented baseball player in the Negro Leagues but was too old for a shot in the big leagues when they were integrated. He is bitter and as the civil rights movement is beginning, feels left out. He is adamant that Cory not have his dreams shattered; Cory is being recruited to play college football, something his barely literate father cannot imagine. So the clash is set up between Troy and Cory with Tory's long-suffering wife, Rose watching the two tangle sometimes like lions. In addition there is Troy's son (Lyon s) by a previous relationship who is also trying to fulfill his dream of being musician and refusing to accept the more limited vision of the future that his father has. And there's Troy's older brother, Gabriel, made simple by a WWII related brain injury plus Troy's friend, Bono.
The problem with this production begins with some of the casting. Cory, played by Chris Myers, does not look like a football player and in the confrontations with his father, played by Esau Pritchett, it hardly seems a fair fight. Cory is small while Troy towers over him. Jared McNeill as Lyons, Troy's older son, does not seem to have either the passion or the slickness that is needed.
But some of the problems are with the directing; it seems superficial. Troy is a difficult man to like, yet for the play to truly succeed you much understand why Rose loves him, why his friend Bono depends on him and why he is the way he is. Not that you will necessarily like him, but you must both understand him and feel for him; you must know the pain and disappointment behind the angry facade. Esau Pritchett's performance just doesn't plumb the depths of the character. You don't feel his pain; all you see is his anger, so you have little sympathy for him.
Portia as his long-suffering wife, Rose, has the same problem to a lesser extent. In one the climatic scenes between the two, you see her shaking but you don't feel the anguish that causes the shaking.
Wilson also provide each of his characters with a jazz-like riff; too many of these sound more like set pieces than heartfelt expressions.
The production values are, as usual excellent; the scenic design by John Iacovelli, costumes by Esosa, lighting by Xavier Pierce and music by John Gromada are very good.
If you have never seen Fences take this opportunity to see one of the early plays of a great American playwright. Just realize you are not seeing a definitive production.
Fences is at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater through Dec. 22. For tickets and information call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers December 18, 2013 and online at Zip06.com.