William Hayes has long wanted to produce August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Fences, but felt he had to wait until Palm Beach Dramaworks was capable and ready to take on such a challenge. Boy, is the company ready now.
Onstage through April 21 is a virtually perfect rendering of Wilson’s 1950s play in his 10-play cycle that charts the evolving black experience throughout the 20th century. That virtual perfection is not simply because it features Los Angeles actor Lester Purry giving a towering performance in the towering role of Troy Maxson.
A Pittsburgh garbage collector and former Negro League baseball star, his anger over never making it to the majors carries over to his contentious relationships with his sons and wife. Purry has played the role previously and perhaps that begins to explain how he is able to inhabit it here so completely.
We first see Troy in a mellow mood one Friday evening, sharing a pint of whiskey and spinning tales with his best friend Bono in the backyard of his modest Pittsburgh home. Purry’s Troy is a natural storyteller, relishing his oft-told yarns with large, embracing gestures.
But he is also haunted by demons and his hale, hearty spirit does not last long, replaced by an anger that can rise to volcanic levels. He is merely dismissive and belittling when Lyons, a son from an earlier marriage, comes around to borrow some spending money. A more seismic ire is reserved for younger son Cory, a high school football player good enough to draw some attention from colleges.
But Cory reminds Troy of himself, and his negativity over the boy’s athletic pursuits reflects a still festering bitterness over his own pre-Jackie Robinson baseball career, stunted by racial barriers and years lost in prison. One could see Troy’s treatment of Cory as tough-love parenting, but there may be no more chilling moment in the play as when Cory softly asks his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?”
Similarly, Lyons keeps asking Troy in vain to come see him play jazz at a local club. Both sons palpably yearn for their father’s approval, but he is unable, or unwilling, to grant it.
Troy’s relationship with his wife Rose is also complex. Playfully affectionate with her while others are around, alone together he has a need to assert himself as ruler of the roost. He openly flaunts an infidelity to her, which triggers an aria of long-held resentment on her part (gut-wrenchingly delivered by Karen Stephens). Rose recognizes Troy’s flaws and frailties and accepts them enough to stay with him while freezing him out of her bed, a marital détente which feels very real.
As Troy, Purry dominates the production, which is all but inevitable in the material. Still, director Hayes has gathered a first-rate cast of actors and orchestrates them into a fine-tuned supporting ensemble. In his Dramaworks debut, Jovan Jacobs’ Cory is a worthy foil to Purry and area veteran John Archie is slyly understated as Troy’s longtime sidekick Bono.
As we have come to expect from Dramaworks, the design elements are richly detailed and evocative. Michael Amico’s backyard set is aptly hyper-realistic, and notice the small touches of neighborhood gentrification late in the play. Resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe provides a well-worn wardrobe of character-steeped clothes and PBD newcomer George Jackson’s lighting guides us through the seasons and the dramatic arc.
Fences is arguably Wilson’s best play, perhaps the most relatable and universal. While it illuminates the advances and setbacks of African-Americans in the post-segregation era, it is the family dynamic that is the play’s strength. As usual with Wilson, however, Fences is overwritten and could stand some editing and tightening. (The 2016 film adaptation runs about 40 minutes shorter than the stage play.) And Wilson has a weakness for blunt symbolism, in a few speeches about fences and in the character of Troy’s brain-addled, trumpet-toting brother, Gabriel.
Still, for a self-taught American playwright of any color, who audaciously announced his intent to create an ambitious 10-play cycle and then did so, Wilson has no equal. The evidence is superbly on display now at Palm Beach Dramaworks.
FENCES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach Through Sunday, April 21. $75. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.