The sixth play in August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, Fences revolves around a deeply flawed protagonist, Troy Maxson. The year is 1957, and Maxson is a garbage collector; fairly early in the play, he becomes the company's first black driver, only to complain later about the isolation of that position. Maxson began playing baseball in prison, where he was sent for a murder he committed during a robbery, and eventually became a star player in the Negro Leagues. But this was before the glory days of Jackie Robinson, and he found himself frozen out of the majors. His father was bestial and violent, and he himself is deeply damaged.
Maxson's wife, Rose, is devoted, but she's far from the stand-by-your-man stereotype: She has a profound and original mind and heart of her own. Their seventeen-year-old son, Cory, is a decent student with a chance for a career in professional football. And there's Lyons, an older son of Maxson's by a previous relationship, a jazz musician who drops by periodically to borrow money. Maxson's brother, Gabe, suffered brain damage during the Second World War; he's now one of those holy, prophetic fools we encounter in so many of Wilson's plays. Clearly named for the archangel, Gabe has visions of life after death, believes himself able to intercede with Saint Peter on behalf of the dead, and carries a horn to open the gates of heaven. Maxson looks out for Gabe and also exploits him. His easiest relationship is with an old friend, Bono, with whom he riffs, laughs and exchanges comfortable mock abuse.
The plot of Fences is more straightforward and less discursive than usual for Wilson; it deals with the effects of Maxson's twisted spirit on the others in his world. He snuffs out Cory's dreams with singular coldness. He's lusty and loving toward Rose, but unable to see her as a separate human being. The play's title refers to the fence that Rose asks Maxson to erect around their shabby little house and yard, a fence that has clear symbolic meaning. She wants protection for her home and those she loves. Her husband wants to repel the outside world and control the domain within. The house is his. It represents everything he's earned and everything he's lost — and it also represents his closed and crabbed psyche. Maxson shares his brother Gabe's vivid imagination. He's terrified of death, and he personifies it — hiding, taunting, and, when he senses the unknown terror slithering through his fence, challenging it. The only family member who has escaped the damage Maxson inflicts as casually as breathing is Lyons, protected by his artistry and passion for music. And perhaps also the little girl whose life only begins to unfold after Maxson's death.
In addition to the web of family, Fences explores webs of time, space and culture, the myriad interactions between an individual and his history. In this it fits with the rest of the Pittsburgh Cycle, which moves decade by decade through the black experience in twentieth-century America, exploring both the community's rich culture and the brutally rejecting outside world that community faces. As always, much of the play's vitality lies in the language: the fraught scene where Cory asks his father why he's never liked him; Maxson's description of his own father; the soul-baring speech in which Rose finally asserts herself: "I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams ... and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom."
Lou Bellamy's craftsmanlike direction does justice to this magnificently evocative play. But there are shortcomings to the production. David Alan Anderson's Troy is strong but lacks the complexities, contradictions and gradations of feeling that would give the character life and stature. This Maxson is a diminished figure, and his complaints sometimes feel more like kvetching than a justified response to a harsh life and a racist society. Out of the rest of the cast, only Kim Staunton's Rose — radiant, strong, vulnerable and full of pain — catches fire. I have no idea how August Wilson wanted his word music spoken, but often the rhythms feel off, with some passages rocketing by and others stretching out emptily, so that the currents moving among these complicated people never quite touch us as they should.