Thursday, September 4, 2014

Breaking through Wilson's Fences at Gloucester Stage

Daver Morrison swings for Wilson's Fences.
With Fences, the Pulitzer Prize winner which became a Broadway hit in 1987, playwright August Wilson seemed to swing for artistic pickets that had long been emblazoned with another author's name - that of Arthur Miller, whose seminal American tragedy Death of a Salesman looms behind Fences like a totem.

Small wonder, then, that Wilson claimed to have never read the play his own opus so often echoed. But who knows? Perhaps he never did. Or perhaps a sympathetic audience can understand that baldly admitting the influence of a leading white playwright might have undermined (or even undone) the effort of this author (of mixed race himself, though many assume otherwise) to achieve something new in the culture: the creation of a full-fledged African-American tragic hero - whose demonic "Iago" is nothing less than American racism itself.

That Wilson succeeded is by now evident, even if the play that corrals his hero, Troy Maxson, is often rough-hewn. Indeed, in terms of craft, Wilson perhaps never matched Miller (much less Shakespeare) - but in a way not unknown in the theatre, somehow the raw power of his voice punches through the rough finish of his play. Frustrated as I sometimes am by its meandering length, Fences never fails to move me - and it touched me again in the current production at Gloucester Stage (which closes this weekend).

It's not that director Eric C. Engel and his talented cast have uncovered new thematic depths in the script, much less "done" something with (or to) the play - they haven't; in fact from its opening moments, the Gloucester version announces itself as a round and unvarnish'd, but basically standard, edition of Wilson's work. Nor is the action overtly linked to the current tragedy in Ferguson, MO (which reminds us - if we needed any reminder - that honest rumination on racism in this country is always timely). No, Engel and his cast have simply attempted to do artistic justice to Wilson's complicated vision of a man half-guilty of his own downfall; and to that, as Miller himself might have said, attention must be paid.

Although that goal means sometimes negotiating (and at times transcending) the script's limits.  For Wilson granted himself few of the conceptual freedoms Miller enjoyed; there's no dream-state psycho-analysis to be found here, and likewise no phantom friends or doppelg√§ngers of the kind Willy Loman encounters as that famous salesman shuffles toward his Death. Indeed, Wilson only gets "inside the head" of his lead through monologue - which lays heavy demands on any actor who takes up the mantle of the play's leading role.

Warren Jackson, Jacqui Parker and Jermel Nakia in August Wilson's Fences.  Photos: Gary Ng.

At Gloucester, that role is delivered by Daver Morrison (who I think still counts as a newcomer locally) with striking authority; Mr. Morrison is not only a believable athlete (Troy's personal tragedy was the racist destruction of his promising career in baseball), but is also blessed with a clarion voice that James Earl Jones himself (who originated the role on Broadway) might have envied. Indeed, Morrison's performance is coolly, almost elegantly, confident - but whether it fully conveys Troy's growing (if denied) awareness of his own spiral toward self-destruction could be debated, I think; likewise tricky questions regarding what disappointed forces his exterior bluster fences in - or what drives him to wrap the chains of racism around his own son (much less betray his faithful wife) - are perhaps never fully limned.

Still, Mr. Morrison remains focused throughout the eloquent marathon Wilson has written for him, and his personal magnetism sees him through the occasional interpretive gap.  And he is surrounded by a remarkably consistent supporting cast.  Jacqui Parker brings a smokily subdued warmth to the part of Rose, his long-suffering wife, while Jared Michael Brown exudes sensitive appeal (if perhaps not quite enough roiling resentment) as the son whose athletic career Troy sabotages just as his own was.  And elsewhere Warren Jackson brings a light touch (perhaps almost too light) to Troy's sketchily charming son from a previous marriage; but the most fearless performance in the cast is certainly that of Jermel Nakia, who daringly physicalizes Troy's damaged brother Gabriel.  Indeed, Nakia's final scene, in which he attempts to herald Troy's entrance to heaven like his namesake angel, is perhaps the most moving version of this scene I've yet witnessed, and caps this memorable close to Gloucester's summer season.

No comments:

Post a Comment