Set mostly in 1957, August Wilson’s “Fences” sits near the middle, chronologically, of the late playwright’s decade-by-decade cycle addressing the African-American experience in the 20th century.
Wilson embeds details anchoring the life of Troy Maxson, his wonderfully complicated protagonist, within the great migration of rural Southern blacks to Northern cities. But as seen in the rugged production now up at Gloucester Stage Company, “Fences” otherwise feels fresh and familiar, sadly relevant in its depiction of the human toll exacted by systemic deprivations.
Just as the financial survival of his family rides on Troy’s shoulders, this production is carried along by the sturdy performance of Daver Morrison, who brings from his first entrance all the charisma and commanding authority the character requires. It’s crucial that audience members feel in their guts why Troy’s friends follow him, his wife loves him, and his children seek his approval, even as his sublimated rage threatens to derail their lives. Morrison’s Troy is by turns likable and intimidating, seductive and repellent. He is spot-on.
Troy is a former Negro League baseball star who found work as a trash collector after serving a 15-year term in prison. With his wife, Rose, serving as a calming influence, and his football-playing son, Cory, being recruited by a college, Troy has long since settled into a stable but numbing routine. He hauls garbage all week, celebrates payday by downing a bottle of gin on the back stoop with his buddy Bono (a likable Gregory Marlow), and looks to sex as a transcendent cure-all.
Sexual innuendo proves an aggressive but playful aspect of Troy’s personality, and Jacqui Parker, in a measured performance as Rose, is dismissive of his inappropriate bawdiness and receptive to his more earnest advances. But sex isn’t just sex; we get a glimpse of the gnawing void Troy is really seeking to fill when he offhandedly describes his bedroom relations as trying “to blast a hole into forever.”
Much of Troy’s struggle reads today like one of class as much as race. When he makes a mistake that threatens his domestic harmony, the act is motivated by the profound sense that his years spent dutifully punching the time clock amount, in the end, to being stuck in place. He feels no less trapped by the struggle for daily bread than did his sharecropping father. As the pervasive (and heavy-handed) baseball metaphors in the play have it, he merely bunted his way onto first base rather than swung for the fences.
Troy’s deepest fear is that he is not seen, that he doesn’t matter; when Cory angrily tells him “you don’t count around here no more,” it’s a punch to the gut. (Jared Michael Brown takes time finding the legs of his performance, but he is more convincing as Cory grows independent and willful.) Though Troy was once a slugger, he was past his prime by the time Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947. When Bono celebrates Troy’s recent promotion, proudly declaring him the first black truck driver on the rubbish crew, it’s a faint and unintentionally cruel echo of Robinson’s distinction.
As suggested by Morrison’s sympathetic portrayal, Troy eventually blocks Cory’s advancement more due to the limitations of his vision than spite. His life experience leads him to see no future in sports for a black man, or any utility in Cory going to college. His older son from a previous relationship, Lyons — imbued with urbane wit by Warren Jackson, in a fine performance — sees jazz as an escape from the mundaneness of workaday life but must submit to a ritualistic dressing-down before his father will lend him some pocket money.
Underneath Troy’s bluster is more than a tinge of guilt, seen clearly in his uneasy interactions with his brother Gabriel, who was left mentally handicapped by a brain injury suffered in wartime. In a stunning, intensely committed performance, Jermel Nakia imbues Gabriel with the sunny enthusiasm of a good-natured child, only to darken the skies with vivid reminders of the demons that pursue him always.
The action is anchored throughout by J. Michael Griggs’s nicely realistic set, handily evoking the back porch and yard that frame a family’s sense of itself. As seen on Saturday in the production’s final preview performance, Eric C. Engel’s clear-eyed direction lets simmer the tensions and ambiguities in Wilson’s script, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Some business with the sound design in the play’s final moments (no sound designer is credited) is jarring but does add clarity to Wilson’s conclusion.
“Fences” suggests that a strong family is the best refuge from a system that would beat you down. In a beautifully realized final scene, when the twisted strands of this unraveled family are briefly tied together again, we believe it to be true.
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremy