by David A. Rosenberg
August Wilson’s “Fences” is a richly wrought tragedy about a family struggling to overcome hopelessness. Despite a less than transcendent Long Wharf production, this is an absorbing, humane evening.
In his Pulitzer Prize winner, Wilson writes about Troy Maxson, a failed baseball player and former criminal, now a sanitation worker looking to better himself. A slap-on-your-back kind of guy, he’s not only cheating on loyal wife Rose but at a loss when it comes to raising his two boys. True, he takes care of his slow-witted brother (significantly named Gabriel and, yes, carrying a horn), but that is, at most, dutiful.
If Rose represents accepting a black family’s lot in 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy’s role is that bequeathed him as a remnant of an ancestral sharecropper past. The future lies with son Cory whom Troy wants to live from paycheck to paycheck. But Cory dreams of college and a football scholarship. “I can’t drag Papa with me everywhere I go,” he says, a cry that includes not dragging the past, either.
The basic father-son conflict may be familiar -- older vs. younger -- but Wilson imbues his characters with such particularities, such specifics, that they insinuate themselves into a viewer’s unconscious. After a slow first act, Wilson’s linguistic and dramatic flair kicks in, justifying judgment that he was a great -- and funny -- playwright. In Troy he created a mythical figure, someone akin to an ancient storyteller, someone both fearing and challenging the fates. ”Bring your army, bring your sickle, bring your wrestling clothes,” he shouts at Death. “I’ll be ready for you.”
The title, “Fences,” refers to the barriers that either keep people in, preventing them from engaging with the world, or out, preventing the world from entering. Cory breaks through but Rose remains tethered to her homemaking, like Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (which “Fences” resembles).
Esau Pritchett is a strong Troy, with the one-named Portia moving as Rose and Chris Myers superb as Cory. Phil McGlaston, Jared McNeill, G. Alverez Reid and the adorable, six-year-old Taylor Dior as Troy’s daughter are all excellent. Wilson’s play retains its power and glory, thanks to Phylicia Rashad’s ability to form a cohesive company of actors.