Over the fence

Publication Date: Friday Mar 17, 2000

Over the fence

TheaterWorks' "Fences" hits one out of the park at Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto

by Laura Reiley

"That's the way that go." These are the last words spoken in TheatreWorks' production of August Wilson's Pulitzer prize- and Tony award-winning play "Fences." They are delivered by a brain-damaged World War II vet named Gabriel on the heels of an epileptic seizure or a bout of religious transport (we're never sure). He is not a well man, but still the words eloquently sum up the painful twists and contortions that make up the lives of the seven characters set down in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1957.

Troy Maxson and his family exhibit all the tensions and contradictions of any family anywhere, but with the added strains of poverty, racism, illiteracy and diminished choices. The miracle of this production, running through April 9 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, is that it manages to convey these strains with great urgency to an audience steeped in millennial hopefulness, affluence and self-satisfaction. The difference between sympathy and empathy, "Fences" immerses you in the narrow paradigm within which the characters struggle.

The two-act play opened originally in 1987 in New York with James Earl Jones in the lead role. Built like a refrigerator box with the booming voice of Darth Vader without his helmet, it wasn't difficult for Jones to seem larger than life. The tour de force, then, is that actor Anthony J. Haney--medium build, well-modulated but normal voice--manages to tower, to cast a huge shadow over the lives of all the characters and indeed the audience of "Fences." Haney and director Harry Elam have managed to tell a powerful story of a good man who does bad things.

Troy Maxson is an ex-convict who went on to have a brief but shining career as a ball player in the Negro Leagues before settling down to become a garbageman and provider. Tired of hefting those garbage cans, he goes to the union to fight the unfair practice of hiring all white garbage truck drivers. He wins the fight, but his penchant for sexual peccadilloes, drinking and "tough-love" parenting beat Maxson down. Symbolically, he swings his old baseball bat again and again, but never manages to connect with the ball.

The metaphor of fences works on numerous levels without ever seeming heavyhanded. A gloriously simple set by Andrea Bechart shows the front porch of the sagging shack where Maxson, his wife Rose and their son Cory live. (The set changes hardly at all during the play, but lighting by Steven Mannshardt cycles elegant through the times of day to give the set depth.) Troy and Cory spend much of the first act constructing a picket fence at the front of the stage--Rose's idea, the fence hardly manages to keep the family safely within and the world safely outside. Still, Troy's sense of being trapped grows through the first four scenes with the construction of the fence, a sense that is mirrored by his son Cory's growing frustration with his father's rigidity.

Cory, played by Foothill College student Cyril Jamal Cooper, is a good student and an athlete with great promise. Because of his father's convictions about the inherent racism in college sports, Cory is forced to abandon his shot at an athletic scholarship. This serves to intensify the boy's need to be out from under the ham-fisted authority of his father. Sent reeling out into the world, Cory's life course is forever mapped through opposition to his father. Cooper's portrayal of Cory is the only less-than-magnificent performance in the production. Stiff and wooden, Cory's flaw may be more due to an inherent two-dimensionality in the character. How can he be fully nuanced in the face of his father's vitality and crushing need?

Rose, played with warmth and humor by Gloria Weinstock, is the character with the greatest capacity for love and perhaps consequently the greatest potential for suffering. While her husband rages against the vicissitudes of fate and his own moments of weak will, she perseveres in her desire for a happy home. When her husband's extramarital affair leaves him with a new baby, Rose embraces the small bundle as only a saint might. She metes out this same acceptance with the remainder of Troy's family, from Lyons Maxson, Troy's oldest son by his previous marriage (Peter Macon inhabits the role with the unctuous sexuality and menace of a con-man in training), to Gabriel Maxson, Troy's crazy brother. It is Gabriel, played heartbreakingly by Colman Domingo, who has the last word. Delusional, he provides an elegy for his dead brother and in fact blows a trumpet to signal the pearly gates opening for his arrival. If there's a heaven, the likelihood of Troy Maxson's admittance is ambiguous. What's not ambiguous is that, while Troy may not have batted 1.000 during his life, he was always willing to step up to the plate.

What: TheatreWorks presents August Wilson's "Fences"

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1306 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto

When: Through Sunday, April 9.

Cost: Tickets are $20-$37.

Call: 903-6000. 

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