International City Theatre revives August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award-winning Fences to stunning effect in a production sure to win universal acclaim for its director, its two extraordinary stars, its equally stellar supporting cast, and indeed everyone involved in this most powerful of stagings.
The changes soon to be wrought by the American Civil Rights Movement have yet to be felt by 53-year-old Hill District sanitation worker Troy Maxson (Michael A. Shepperd), still bitter about the pre-Jackie Robinson segregation that made Major League baseball off-limits for a player of color, no matter how great his talents.
A prison record for an accidental murder committed during attempted robbery has hardly helped the sharecropper’s son’s self-esteem, nor do de facto rules reserving Pittsburgh’s sanitation truck-drivers’ spots for whites.
As for Troy’s relationship with second wife Rose (Karole Foreman), the couple’s marriage may be solid, but Papa’s got a player of a son in 30something dandy Lyons (Theo Perkins), a younger boy (Jermelle Simon as 17-year-old Cory) intent on a career in football regardless of his father’s wishes, and a war-damaged brother (Matt Orduña as Gabe) around to complicate his life and give him grief.
Fences bears comparison to Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman and All My Sons in its hero’s complexity and in the husband-wife, father-son relationships it so powerfully and honestly depicts.
Troy Maxson may not be an ideal husband or father by contemporary standards, but he provides his family with a roof over their heads and keeps them fed and clothed. As for Rose’s insistence on fidelity and Cory’s wish to be “liked,” much as we may sympathize with and support both wife and son, it’s clear why neither of their desires is a priority for Fence’s protagonist.
Adding to Troy’s complexities is his unwillingness to be fenced in by a society that insists he accept a second-rate job assignment, and indeed his courage in speaking out about this injustice recalls Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit in the back of the bus, albeit with less world-altering impact.
No wonder then, that since James Earl Jones won the Tony for originating the role on Broadway, Troy has given black actors their Willy Loman, their Joe Keller.
Shepperd joins an illustrious list of predecessors in bringing Troy to life in all his weaknesses and strengths, giving what is sure to be recognized as one of the year’s most towering performances as a man hardened by life but still capable of tenderness and ultimately quite touching in his humanity.
That Shepperd quite literally towers over Foreman’s Rose only makes his leading lady’s work all the more striking. No shrinking violet, this Rose, a sensational Foreman’s fearlessness opposite a man twice her size reveals a woman of utmost self-confidence and inner might.
Under Gregg T. Daniel’s incisive, nuanced direction, a memorable supporting cast join Shepperd and Foreman in bringing Fences to rich, vibrant life.
A heart-breakingly real Orduña steals every scene he’s in as the mentally-challenged Gabe, Carrington is absolutely terrific as the loyal, good-natured Bono, and Perkins combines a suave sexiness and a bad-boy charm to make for a thoroughly winning Lyons.
As for Simon, the handsome newcomer is such a charismatic natural as Cory that you’d never guess this was his big-stage professional debut. (Expect big things ahead for this small-town South Carolina native.)
Completing the cast is young Mma-Syrai Alek, a delight as Raynell.
Fences producer caryn desai has assembled a production design team whose talents match those of her cast, beginning with the pitch-perfect two-story working-class Pittsburgh house that scenic designer Don Llewellyn has given the Maxsons, exquisitely lit by Karyn D. Lawrence. Resident costume designer Kim DeShazo has once again come up with just-right outfits for each of her characters, with snaps to resident hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi, in particular for Rose’s and Lyons’ period dos. Additional kudos go to sound designer Jeff Polunas, resident properties designers Patty, Gordon, and Christopher Briles, and fight director Edgar Landa.
Victoria A. Gathe is production stage manager and Grant Lewis is assistant stage manager. Casting is by resident casting director Michael Donovan, CSA, and casting associate Richie Ferris.
International City Theatre’s 32nd-anniversary revival of the first of August Wilson’s two Pulitzer Prize winners makes it abundantly clear why Fences has proven the most popular of his ten Pittsburgh plays.
In its depiction of one particular family in one particular time and place, Fences’ offers its audiences a story of universal appeal, one that any theatergoer can respond to regardless of age, race, or social status.
ICT does August Wilson’s Greatest Hit absolutely right.
International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
August 21, 2105
Photos: Suzanne Mapes