Swing Away

August Wilson's Fences scores a home run at the Acoma Center.

August Wilson came to prominence when the first of his cycle of plays about black life, each set in a different twentieth-century decade, graced the Great White Way in 1984. A year earlier, though, another of Wilson's works had begun playing at theaters in New Haven, Chicago and San Francisco. Propelled by James Earl Jones's unforgettable portrayal of a former Negro Leagues baseball player, the play, Fences, premiered on Broadway in 1987. And with one mighty swing of the pen, Wilson won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play.

Now, two theater companies are bolstering their local reputations by giving top-flight treatment to Wilson's signature drama. The joint effort of Denver's Shadow Theatre and Curious Theatre companies is, top to bottom, the best production to be staged at the Acoma Center in the last five years.

Shadow's artistic director, Jeffrey Nickelson, leads the company with his portrayal of Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old sanitation worker -- and former baseball great, second only to Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson in the category of lifetime homers -- who's barely able to eke out a living in an unnamed 1950s metropolis. (Numerous references, including those to Mellon Bank, the nearby communities of Homestead and Greentree and the Pirates major-league baseball team peg the city in question as Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh, which serves as a backdrop for many of his plays). After an overly energized opening scene, Nickelson quickly settles into the role and turns in a powerhouse performance. From the moment he tells his best friend that he'd rather give his business to the people who treat him decently, Troy's bitterness at having been denied a life equal to his talents rises to the surface.

Adrienne Martin-Fullwood and David Pinckney in August Wilson's Fences.
Adrienne Martin-Fullwood and David Pinckney in August Wilson's Fences.

It's a different tack than Jones adopted when he played the role on Broadway, but both approaches prove equally valid: Where his New York counterpart took to the part with characteristic finesse, measuring his anger and wielding his trusty baseball bat in classic, light-on-the-shoulder fashion, Nickelson imbues Troy with palpable fury, at one point grabbing a well-worn stick of turned lumber and taking compact swings that bespeak a lifetime of frustration. Along those lines, Nickelson bellows, swaggers, cajoles, rages and seethes, all while trying, mostly in vain, to teach his youngest son some valuable lessons about life ("Colored got to be twice as good to get on the team," he says). He also forges strong, yet extremely volatile relationships with the other members of his family, including his long-suffering wife, disabled brother and estranged older son. It's a courageous performance that's most moving when Troy makes a confession to his wife in Act Two and, a few moments later, lets loose with some harsh, prescient thoughts about death.

Adrienne Martin-Fullwood leads the first-rate supporting cast with a flawless, eloquently spoken portrait of Troy's wife, Rose, finding sweet strength in moments of repose and broad vulnerability during heated exchanges. As Cory, the would-be athlete whose dreams are dashed by his father's insistence on practicality, David Pinckney is by turns precocious, passionate and anguished. When he returns home in the final scene, his evident transformation from youth to manhood evokes feelings of triumph and abject sorrow. Dwayne Carrington is right on the money as Troy's pal, Bono, as are Hugo Jon Sayles, who plays Troy's brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, and Cajardo Lindsey, who turns in a slick, nicely shaded rendering of Troy's older son, Lyons. And Cherry Hills Elementary School student Alysia Murphy deserves an A+ for her delightful portrait of daughter Raynell.

Curious Theatre artistic director Chip Walton guides the ensemble with a firm yet free hand, directing some scenes with precision and allowing others to find their own rhythms. As played against a tastefully lit, back-alley landscape (Dan Guyette designed the brick-and-board setting, and William Temple Davis fashioned the lighting), the two-and-a-half-hour production takes hold within the first fifteen minutes and never loosens its grip. The winners here are many: two talented companies reveling in a positive synergy, local audiences discovering a quality alternative to big-box theatrical fare, and a playwright, undoubtedly one of America's best, enjoying a heart-pumping revival. All of it, as one character poignantly suggests near play's end, is cause for rejoicing.

 
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