August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning “Fences” presented by Arizona Theatre Company (ATC) at Herberger Theater last night is the toughest kind of story to tell. Just the simple image of a wooden barrier, told of by simple folks, nonetheless exposed poignantly a story about invisible demons and fenced off isolation. At each turn, the audience became increasingly aware that loathing resentment, however well concealed, can create an insurmountable barricade.
Part of the play’s poignancy rested on the crucial nameless character that the combined set, props and lighting of this particular drama comprise. Vicky Smith’s beautifully dilapidated and sparsely appointed house, along with a yard strewn with lumber and rusty tools, played into a metaphor of a worn and broken structure struggling to function by the unlikely solution of a newly picketed perimeter. Also, a stark spotlight beam silently swept across the stage signifying Death on occasion, effectively invoking nauseous unease better than any scythe-wrangling cloaked figure might.
The story’s central conflict and character are unlikable. Both are filled with tragic slices of the human condition. The visible action revolves primarily around the unremarkable task of sawing and hammering together a fence, a sort of father-son project in theory. Troy Maxon (David Alan Anderson), said father and main character, is an embittered garbage collector of the 1950s who was denied his deserved pro baseball career in the days before Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. But–regarding the unlikable parts–as Paul Griffin, Director of New York’s Possibility Project, a program for treating trauma through theater said, “The stuff of tragedy in theater revolves around coping with betrayal, assault and destruction.”
Wilson’s protagonist, Troy, certainly betrayed and destroyed the most fragile and promising parts of people closest to him last night. Most notably, his faithful wife Rose (Kim Staunton) and their sons, musician Lyons (James T. Alfred) and promising athlete Cory (Edgar Sanchez), suffered. And it was painful to watch the play deconstruct. The precious few able to elude Troy’s most damaging assaults were his war-damaged brother Gabe (Terry Bellamy), his best friend Bono (Marcus Naylor) and a sweetly innocent little girl, Raynell (Simeeyah Grace Baker).
Yet, the tragedy was simultaneously a gift of wonder in ATC director Lou Bellamy’s hands. When a cast is so solid and unflinching in their portrayals, it’s difficult to discern onto whom exactly the praise should scatter. Suffice to note that sensitive direction and immersive acting carried the story’s heft with awing effect. All those subtle parts in need of deciphering–the creative team’s ingenuity and cast’s efforts–succeeded under Wilson’s masterful command of simple language and dialect that oozed layers of meaning from every scene. Maybe that’s what’s behind the Pulitzer and Tony notoriety.
“Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in,” said Bono, Troy’s true but wary friend. With the literal boards and sawhorses at his feet, the comment seemed unassuming enough.
Naylor’s acting prowess as Bono, however allowed him to deliver the title-weighted words lightly but still with distinct gravity. Brimming with simple authenticity, he further demonstrated that he sensed rather than cognitively understood, that stepping through the gate and behind the fence would be a grave error. By the second act, the fence, scene by scene, had slowly come to physically separate Bono’s own untormented existence from Troy’s angry, shackled life. Emphasized by deliberate staging, Naylor’s language and measured, halting conversation with Troy effectively signified how Troy’s actions were increasingly walling himself off from others.
In Wilson’s world of ‘Fences,’ the safest way around barriers last night was to communicate directly with Troy as little as possible. In that, Terry Bellamy and young Baker, as Gabe and Raynell, both rose to the acting challenge of exuding peace and wisdom with very few words. Lovely, simple Gabe was, oddly, blessed by the plate in his head and the resulting mental deficiency of his war wound. Before the curtain ever rose, his character had had the sensitive intuition to escape the poisonous house before Troy began constructing the insurmountable enclosure around it. His heart, as long as it was not bound to Troy’s dwelling, could remain open and loving. Bellamy’s body postures and determination to connect despite nonsensical raving and simplistic rationales were an outstanding credit to his skill.
Edgar Sanchez as Cory used his body language to remarkable effect as well. His youthful athletic tosses and leaps, on one occasion clearing the fence in an impressive vertical jump, provided the audience ample hope that he might escape his dad’s oppressive disdain. The audience crumbled to discover late in the second act that rather than escaping, he’d taken his father’s Fence with him, erected it behind a proud, emotionless facade of a respected military uniform and mind set. Sanchez’s stiff body and line delivery in the final scene were heartbreaking.
The vulnerable manner in which Kim Staunton offered her unconditional love, her crushed spirit and her resilient strength to the audience was also deeply affecting as she stood steadfastly as Rose beside her husband Troy. One monologue in particular highlighted her own recognition of the transformation the audience had already witnessed earlier in the show with the discomfort of having intruded on the most intimate of private moments.
“I didn’t know” Rose bemoaned in hindsight. She had unwittingly requested Troy build the fence, longing to protect and insulate her love and her family. “I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine. I did that. I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn’t hardly tell which was which anymore.” Not until the scenes thereafter did she bravely step physically beyond the pickets for the first time, a very moving bit of staging.
And poor Troy. Though he seemed the monster that destroyed everyone around him, he was the most tormented and disabled of all. He was incapable of introspection.
“Anything you can’t understand, you call the devil,” Rose jokingly remarked in the first act, before the jovial Troy’s facade had begun to chip and crack.
In this role, Anderson earned the evening’s highest praise. Though his own character was never self-aware, Anderson somehow allowed the audience to see inside Troy. That meant his job was multi-faceted. First, he needed to be hyper-aware of what it is to close off so much pain and resentment of one’s lot in life. Then his blatant pursuit of and defense of sexual intimacy, along with his rejection of his sons who were attempting to succeed, felt as honest and true as the hidden misery and despair.
Anderson’s mean-edged, self-righteous character construction affected in unexpected ways. It was not that the viewers forgave his wandering, punishing heart. But he seemed to cobble a thin air of empathy. We afforded him a feeling that his pain and dejection was so monstrous that it was locked away inside where not even he could see it.
The message the audience received was about the lonely desperation that seeped in and affected the people the afflicted person touched. That fence didn’t just keep bottled up an individual’s anger and pain. It imprisoned the people that surrounded and loved most the victim.
Perhaps then, that was the powerful healing balm of ATC’s “Fences.” Though we couldn’t forgive the trespasses, we could forgive that a human was flawed–and that he was hurting–because we too, are human. Through the performance at Herberger Theater we were viscerally touched by the destruction wrought by the arduous construction of fences.