Friday, September 18, 2009

The Huntington swings for August Wilson's Fences . . .

John Beasley as Troy Maxson in August Wilson's Fences.

. . . but doesn't quite connect in its new production of this much-lauded Pulitzer Prize-winner. Not that you're going to get that critique from the print critics, who know only too well that criticizing Wilson carries with it a certain - how to put this - racial charge (just ask Bob Brustein). Add to that the Huntington's new penchant for launching pogroms against its reviewers, and you may sense the interesting level of critical insulation this theatre has recently achieved.

Still, no more insulation, you could argue, than Brustein himself had for the A.R.T., with its Harvard/New Republic connections. And at any rate, the fact that many critics will inevitably hail Fences as a "masterpiece" will still be okay, because the play is certainly worthy, and the production is often pretty good (and features one great performance, from Crystal Fox). It's also wonderful to see the Huntington return to some level of seriousness after last spring's multiplex-friendly follies like Pirates! and that anal commedia thing.

Still, as we gain more historical perspective on August Wilson (who died in 2005), can we not also begin to gain some critical perspective? Mr. Wilson devoted his creative life to examining African-American history in the twentieth century, and his comprehension of the theatrical dimensions of that subject was breathtaking. And in its way unsparing. Fences, for example, is a laudable attempt at balancing the legacy of this country's racism with a vision of a flawed hero who is responsible, to some degree, for his own ongoing oppression. Indeed, the play is set right at the cusp of the civil rights movement - 1957, the year the Little Rock high schools were integrated - but its greatest dramatic questions hang on whether its characters will be able to take advantage of their new opportunities.

Now this kind of thematic material is, I think, basically taboo for white dramatists (and appropriately so); and this is part of what makes Wilson so valuable - his work is actually not about the injustice of racist oppression, but rather about how African-Americans responded within their own community to their terrible situation. Indeed, in Fences Wilson doesn't even bother bringing white people onstage; their abuse of their power is taken for granted, it simply isn't what he's writing about. So I wonder if the playwright would agree with the white Globe reviewer who opined that the hero of Fences has been left "with a permanently wounded self, and . . . will eventually inflict so many wounds on his wife and son that he will virtually tear his family apart." Or rather I wonder whether the playwright wouldn't perceive that statement as an elision of his central question, which is whether his hero, the unfulfilled baseball player Troy Maxson, could have transcended his wounds - and precisely how much responsibility he bears for the havoc he wreaks on his family. In short, is Troy Maxson a hero - or an anti-hero? And what happens to a dream deferred when it is deferred again by its own dreamer?

The Huntington production answers these queries with a moving, but not entirely convincing, blast of light from Heaven at its finish. But the question still lingers, perhaps because it's one of the great dramatic questions - essentially a variant on the great tragic question. And it's certainly true that Wilson perceived the depth of the issues he was grappling with, and often evoked them beautifully in stand-alone speeches. Indeed, the playwright understood perfectly every emasculating humiliation that the white establishment had visited on his hero (Maxson has been reduced to collecting garbage), and how these experiences funneled inevitably into the social and sexual issues plaguing so many African-American families. 

But truth be told, Wilson rarely managed to embed these insights in satisfying dramatic action. Fences has more structure than some Wilson plays, but its action often pokes awkwardly out of the dialogue (which is sometimes between the hero and himself). And the drama is studded with obvious symbols - a fence slowly rising around Maxson's home, a fantasy baseball made of rags - that feel applied to the play rather than integrated into it. (The very solid and convincing set, by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, is below.)

John Beasley and Eugene Lee hang out on a seeming actual chunk of Pittsburgh.

Still, even without the mysterious resonance of genuine dramatic metaphor, Fences could be compelling as oration, as many of its speeches are powerful and complex (in a way, Wilson often strikes me as more of a stage preacher-man than a playwright). But in this long, demanding, sometimes-nearly-solo turn, John Beasley impresses with a strong natural presence, but his performance lacks the kind of modulation, development, and build that might hold us transfixed through his decline and fall. And on opening night Mr. Beasley stumbled several times over lines and stage business, at least once giving the sense that he had lost his place in the play. Thus the production feels repetitive, and sometimes even stop-and-go, despite the efforts of a sterling supporting cast.

Although those supporting performances may be worth the price of admission all on their own. Crystal Fox (at left) brings award-worthy strength and subdued fire to the role of Maxson's long-suffering wife, Rose, and as best buddy Bono, Eugene Lee is just about pitch-perfect.

There's likewise spirited work from Warner Miller as son Cory - who realizes he must defy his father to realize the dreams he can now see on the horizon - as well as a haunting turn from Bill Nunn, as the damaged brother who now believes he's the angel Gabriel.

All these actors seem to know precisely what they're doing, and no doubt have benefited from director Kenny Leon's individual attention, but their efforts to raise the stakes as the production progresses are of little avail. As Mr. Beasley further internalizes his role, and manages to convey the impression of a man sinking beneath a welter of contradictions, Fences may indeed fly out of the park.

 But not until then.

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