August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” is having a much-deserved cultural moment. Recently an Oscar-nominated film directed by and starring Denzel Washington (reprising his role from the 2014 Broadway revival), “Fences” and the rest of the ten play Century Cycle are back in the forefront of the cultural consciousness. Two of the ten are playing in Cincinnati this spring alone: Playhouse in the Park’s upcoming “Two Trains Running,” and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s dynamite production of “Fences,” which opened Friday night.
Troy Maxson is the protagonist (and occasionally antagonist). Troy is a garbage man, frustrated by the racial lines holding him back, and bemoaning a baseball career that could’ve been. Troy is played masterfully by “ranney,” a mononymous actor whose credits include comedy and Fringe work across multiple continents. “ranney”’s Troy is larger than life, an imposing figure in both the space and in the dialogue. Troy even tends to bulldoze right over his old friend Jim Bono (Sylvester Little Jr.), whom he met during their respective prison stints. Troy and Jim work together for the sanitation department, and retire to Troy’s backyard to share a bottle of gin and shoot the breeze.
The entirety of “Fences” takes place in the backyard of the Maxsons’ Pittsburgh home, a set beautifully realized by designer Shannon Moore. The setting lends a warm intimacy to the meandering conversations between Troy and his family and friends; it also magnifies moments of immense grief and abrupt violence. The titular fence, a work in progress at the play’s outset, stands as both a physical and metaphorical boundary for what Troy sees as rightly his — his land, his family, his rules. Within that fence, he is able to maintain a degree of control.
But Troy’s wife Rose (Torie Wiggins) is the pillar of the family and of this play. She is the tireless, hardworking matriarch of the Maxson family, her hands always busy with laundry or knitting or kitchen work. As the rest of her relatives come and go from the yard, Rose is stuck within Troy’s fence for nearly the entirety of the play. When she finally bursts out, railing against Troy’s inconsiderate carelessness, it is the first time her husband is cut down to size, and is the most striking monologue in a play full of them.
Company regular Geoffrey Warren Barnes II lends immense dignity to Troy’s brother Gabriel, a disabled World War II veteran whose disability check paid for the Maxson home. Gabriel roams the neighborhood selling fruit and singing, beloved by some, a nuisance to others. The loss of his fixed income since moving out is a source of palpable family tension, despite Troy’s denials. The fundamental difference between the two brothers’ outlook is at the very core of the play: Troy is obsessed with devils and demons, with warding off the very personification of death until he’s ready to come for Troy mano a mano. Gabriel’s gaze is pointed upwards, fixated on angels and his brother’s place in St. Peter’s book at the gates of heaven.
Much of the conflict in “Fences” revolves around Troy’s sons. Cory (Christian Wiltshire) is vulnerable and earnest, a high school football star with prospects of a college scholarship. His older half brother Lyons (Darnell Pierre Benjamin) is sharp and slick, a jazz musician in his early 30’s landing stints at increasingly impressive bars and hotspots. Troy’s expectations for each are immense, but Cory, still under his father’s roof, consistently bears the brunt. Newcomer Morgan Reynolds is delightful and utterly charming in her small role during the second act.
As with all of Wilson’s ten Pittsburgh plays, you also have a real sense of this as a single narrative among many. A myriad of side characters are introduced in conversation, and although never seen onstage, they are very much a part of the play. The neighbors’ house looms at stage left, silent but surely full of stories of its own. This is all to say that “Fences” feels lived in, real and timeless. The Maxsons’ yearnings resonate out across the decades, brought to vivid life by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
Nat Tracey-Miller is a Cincinnati-based school librarian, musician, and cartophile whose love spans from Bowie to Beethoven to B.I.G. to Brubeck and hits every point in between. His writing has appeared in CincyMusic, Columbus Calling, Tome to the Weather Machine, Mixtape Methodology, and more. He records and performs locally with The Birds of America and ITAM.