By Richard Ades
Troy Maxson, a black man who collects trash for the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950s, is a combustible mixture of pride and anger. In many ways, that’s good.
At work, it allows him to question the assumption that only white guys get the relatively cushy job of driving the truck. But at home, it sometimes complicates his relationship with his wife and sons.
Troy is a complex man, and it will be interesting to see what Denzel Washington does with the role (which he’s already played on Broadway) when a film version of August Wilson’s Fences comes out in December. Meanwhile, we get to see what Mujahid Abdul-Rashid does with the part at Short North Stage.
Directed by Mark Clayton Southers—the main force behind the troupe’s yearlong August Wilson Festival—this is a handsomely mounted production. Edward Carignan’s scenic design is a realistic depiction of the Maxsons’ yard, complete with a two-story brick house and massive tree. Mark Whitehead’s sonic design adds realistic ambient sounds.
Against this backdrop, the cast gives gutsy and naturalistic performances, even if they don’t always gel is the most dramatically effective way.
Abdul-Rashid is solid as Troy, who is stern toward teenage son Cory (Taylor Moses), sarcastic with perpetually broke older son Lyons (Bryant Bentley) and affectionate but dictatorial toward wife Rose (Rita Gregory). As the breadwinner, he expects his word to be law.
About the only time Troy relaxes is when he shares an after-work swig with friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Victor D. Little). And the only time he shows compassion is when he comes to the aid of addled brother Gabriel (Lawrence Evans), who hasn’t been the same since he suffered a head wound fighting in World War II. However, this compassion may stem from guilt as much as brotherly concern, as Troy was able to buy a house only because he appropriated the compensatory payment Gabriel received for his injury.
All of the cast members—including Faith Bean, who plays a late-arriving character—bring ample talent to the production. Yet at Thursday’s preview, the emotional nuances and crescendos sometimes failed to develop. And a key scene, which should have been a combination of sorrow and joy, seemed to ignore the former in favor of the latter.
Lengthy scene changes also weakened the work’s dramatic arc, especially when the accompanying music bore little relationship to what came before.
Despite such problems—many of which likely will recede over the course of the run—the production is sturdy enough to reveal why the play won both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize after opening on Broadway in 1987.
Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays about African-American life in the 20th century, Fences had its first performance in 1985, only one year after Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which was presented by Short North Stage in the late spring). As a result, there are obvious similarities between the two, but there also are key differences.
The biggest is that Fences seems less self-consciously representative of African-American struggles. Troy, for example, complains that Major League Baseball’s old segregated ways kept him from pursuing a professional career in the sport, but it’s suggested that he was hampered by his age as much as his skin color, having spent 15 of his young-adult years in prison.
Fences is filled with social consciousness, but it’s primarily the tragic story of one flawed but very human man. By the end, we’ve gained enough understanding of the forces that shaped him that we can’t help mourning—not the man he’s become but the man he could have been.
Short North Stage will present Fences through Sept. 25 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shornorthstage.org.