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Theater review: 'Fences' at South Coast Repertory

January 31, 2010 |  3:45 pm

Who loves August Wilson’s “Fences” more, actors or audiences? The answer is probably a toss-up.
The roles of bitter ex-baseball player and volatile family man Troy Maxson and his pious and persevering wife, Rose, seem to be as satisfying to play as they are to witness. No wonder Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett were drawn to portray the couple at Pasadena Playhouse in 2006, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are slated to take their crack at these canonical parts on Broadway this spring.

Charlie Robinson, who stars in South Coast Repertory’s workmanlike revival opposite Juanita Jennings, knows Troy inside and out, having earned an Ovation Award for his performance in Jeffrey Hayden’s exquisitely observed 2006 production at the Odyssey Theatre. Robinson wears the character’s cutting contradictions as naturally as he swings a baseball bat, and it’s too bad that the ensemble under Seret Scott’s direction doesn’t coalesce more seamlessly around him.

South coast 1Fortunately, this 1987 drama, decorated with a Tony and a Pulitzer, is one of the most reliable in Wilson’s 10-play decade-by-decade cycle of 20th century African American life. Even an unsettled production such as this one can pack a mighty emotional punch, and first-timers will certainly experience the tremendous power of Wilson’s cultural mission.

The year is 1957, and 53-year-old Troy, a garbage collector, can’t help feeling that time has passed him by. A former Negro League slugger, he was too old to benefit from Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball. And he’s still angrily bumping against bigotry at the workplace, railing against a sanitation system that has “all whites driving and the colored lifting.”

Oppression and injustice have indeed taken their toll. Troy works for the weekend, coming home on Friday evenings with his buddy Bono (Gregg Daniel), a pint of booze and his weekly salary for Rose. A wild storyteller, he delights in embellishing tales almost as much as he likes giving a verbal lashing to his two sons.

Lyons (Brandon J. Dirden), Troy’s oldest boy from a previous marriage, is a musician who has a habit of coming around his father’s Pittsburgh home on payday looking for a little loan. Troy is merciless in his mockery, forking over the money only at the insistence of his wife, who’s too sensitive to tolerate such sarcastic cruelty.

Cory (Larry Bates), the son Troy had with Rose, receives even rougher treatment. He still lives with Troy, who seems intent on punishing him for everything bad that’s ever happened to him. Troy doesn’t mean to be a sadist. Yet his method of preparing his son for the inevitable hard knocks is not only brutal but also blind to the progress that society has incrementally made.

The main bone of contention between Cory and Troy is over a football scholarship. Troy doesn’t want Cory to suffer the same disappointment in sports that he did, and so he does everything in his despotic control to prevent his son from accepting the offer.

“Times have changed from when you was young, Troy,” Rose pleads. “People change. The world’s changing around you and you can’t even see it.”

But hopeful words aren't enough for Troy. The character — first realized on Broadway in a titanic, Tony-winning thunderclap by James Earl Jones — has struggled too long to expect compensation for his losses. He's also swamped with guilt for having taken money from his brother, Gabe (Baron Kelly), a veteran mentally impaired from his wartime injuries, and his condemnations seem at least partly self-directed.

What’s fascinating is the way Wilson sees Troy not just as a victim or a tyrant but as a man who’s rattling the cage of his existential prison. As more of his private life is revealed, a painful psychological pattern emerges: Troy jeopardizes what he loves most even as he steadfastly fulfills the domestic responsibilities that are choking him.

The production, convincingly situated on Shaun Motley’s urban backyard set, has a choppy rhythm. One of the problems is that the performances, though individually solid (Jennings, in particular, is touching), don’t knit together especially well. It’s as though the actors had rehearsed separately and never got around to synchronizing their styles and timing.

Still, the dramatic conflicts — marital and generational every bit as much as historical and societal — make for an unusually absorbing theatrical journey. “Fences” may be ploddingly conventional in its storytelling, but when Robinson’s Troy rages at the unfairness of his lot and Jennings’ Rose refuses to buckle under the strain, the political becomes achingly personal and the past hemorrhages straight into the present.

-- Charles McNulty  

Follow me on Twitter @charlesmcnulty

"Fences," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 21. $28-$65. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Photos: Juanita Jennings and Charlie Robinson. Bottom: Robinson. Credit: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times