Moments into the opening night performance of “Fences” at Performance Network Theatre, actors Lynch Travis and James Bowen entered as Troy Maxson and his best friend Jim Bono, and the two commiserated about work, women, baseball and the devil. It was a magnificent beginning, full of vigor and electricity – and the two painted playwright August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning words with an amazing palate of color. It was a magnificent beginning to the sixth play in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” which chronicles the African-American experience throughout the decades of the 20th century – and I anticipated nothing less from these stellar performers.
So why, then, did I walk out of the theater a few hours later slightly disappointed that the high expectations built by that one engaging scene weren’t totally fulfilled by play’s end?
What Wilson hands to his directors and actors is a script packed with passion and poetry, nuance and insight – and “Fences” is filled with plenty of nuggets to explore. To find them all is difficult enough; to deliver them clearly and with precision is another matter indeed. And while director Tim Rhoze and his talented cast certainly plumbed the work quite deeply, its delivery still needs some spit ‘n polish to arrive at the level this otherwise fine production strives towards – and deserves to achieve.
Which, I suspect, will happen after a few more performances.
Wilson built “Fences” around Troy, a 53-year-old black man living in the late 1950s, but haunted by the racial inequities of earlier decades. Once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, Troy, now a garbage man in Pittsburgh, believes he was kept out of the Major Leagues solely because of his color – and not his age. It’s a myopic worldview shaped by a lifetime of experience: a tough-as-nails father; a rough, early adulthood; some jail time; and the desire to keep his sons Lyons (Christopher Hogan) and Cory (Julian Gant) from making the same mistakes he did. But his refusal to see the changes in the world around him has unintended repercussions – as does an extramarital affair that produces a daughter.
Rhoze’s staging of the script is crisp and well-conceived – including the scene changes that blend smoothly, almost slyly, one into the next.
However, the show tended to lose steam on opening night during a handful of monologues. That’s especially true with Travis, who occasionally stumbled through his reams of dialogue and mixed up names, and, at other times, lost the passion behind the words, which resulted in rote recitation.
Another problem was with the character of Gabriel (Michael Joseph), Troy’s brother who was brain-damaged during WWII. Occasionally kept frozen on the fringes of the action, Gabriel’s mystical moment near the end of the play lacked clarity for some in the audience on opening night.
Bowen never wavered, however, and Sheila Alyce Slaughter forged a fully-realized and sympathetic Rose, whose life is shattered by her husband’s unexpected unfaithfulness.
All of the show’s technical elements are fine, especially Monika Essen’s realistic set that both serves the show exceptionally well and had people guessing throughout the night whether or not the brick walls are real.
Ah, the magic of live theater!
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Through May 24. $25-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org