Rating (out of four stars): ★★★
True to its title, August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Herberger Theater Center held me prisoner.
For a little more than two hours, I was trapped just outside the Maxson family home in Pittsburgh, Penn., the permanent setting of Wilson’s Tony Award-winning masterpiece.
There are no major set changes in “Fences.” Instead, the audience sees the same scenery the entire time: a slightly dilapidated brick house with a patio and a small yard. A pine fence begins to take shape around the yard as the play continues.
The effect of such a concept is to eliminate any distraction the audience may have from becoming totally immersed in the minute goings-on inside the Maxson yard. It is to render the viewer completely emotionally invested in the characters, to the point where some moments are quite painful to witness.
“Fences” is the sixth play in the ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles a century of the African-American experience. Although each play in the Pittsburgh Cycle brings up the topic of race relations, “Fences” deals also with topics such as domestic abuse, feminism, adultery and mental health.
In the production at the Herberger, billed as a co-production between the Arizona Theatre Company, Indiana Repertory Theatre and Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, David Alan Anderson plays Troy Maxson, the deeply flawed patriarchal main character. Anderson is impenetrable as Troy. He so completely became Troy Maxson — from his manner of speaking to his thinly veiled insecurities — that I do not speak lightly when I say that his was one of the best performances I have seen as a theatregoer.
As Rose Maxson (played by Kim Staunton) was, like me, somewhat held hostage inside the micro-world of the Maxson home, for her I felt an overwhelming empathy. Staunton’s performance was bursting with energy. At times, certain moments in her dialogue felt slightly rigid and overacted, but especially on opening night, it was easy to overlook. The scene when Rose discovers Troy will soon have a son by another woman was impeccably well done; Rose’s anger trickling out in a steady stream until she finally explodes into a wrenching, visceral monologue.
The high energy that persisted throughout the play, whether a result of careful direction or opening night jitters, kept me totally engrossed. Lou Bellamy’s direction showed in the way each scene possessed a distinct, controlled rhythm. No one missed a beat.
Although Edgar Sanchez’s portrayal of Cory Maxson sometimes took on overdone, caricature-like qualities, he had strong moments that included a nail-biting verbal and physical showdown between Cory and Troy, his father. This was a spot where stage combat training shone, though other combat-heavy scenes were not always as convincing.
As always at the Herberger, the scenery and props for “Fences” were beautiful, but the lighting was astounding. Lighting designer Don Darnutzer set up the stage in a way that clearly showed the time of day, the weather, the mood.
Setting up lighting to represent Troy’s hallucination of the Devil outside the fences couldn’t have been an easy task. Without careful artistic discretion, the weight of Troy’s drunken ramblings when he speaks to the Devil would have been lost to an audience, instead becoming merely tacky. As it were, Darnutzer’s lighting, combined with the skill of sound designer Brian Jerome Peterson, made me genuinely frightened–by a spotlight.
I gave this play three stars because there were moments in drama-ridden scenes with Staunton and with Sanchez that seemed slightly rigid and rehearsed. But this was opening weekend. By the end of the run, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Fences” were even better—a tall order for a roller coaster heart-wrencher of a performance of one of the most iconic plays in American theater.