August Wilson’s tremendously visceral 1987 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Fences,” among the finest inclusions in his remarkable 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, opens Wright State University’s 40th anniversary season with emotionally riveting resonance.
Beginning in 1957 and spanning nearly eight years in the life of a middle class African-American family in Pittsburgh, “Fences,” splendidly and poignantly co-directed by W. Stuart McDowell and Sheila Ramsey, centers its thought-provoking account of race, regret, responsibility, faith, struggle, and sacrifice on Troy Maxson (Law Dunford), a dysfunctional, disillusioned former Negro League baseball hotshot. In the Maxsons backyard, where the engrossing action transpires, loudmouth Troy is king of his castle, a welcomed escape from his daily grind as a sanitation worker longing for a promotion. A habitual storyteller still harboring daddy issues from his scarred childhood, Troy tends to be unbearably over-the-top for the sake of attention, but his larger-than-life persona is nonetheless a huge factor to his appeal not only in the eyes of his loyal friend and fellow ex-convict Jim Bono (Brandon Kinley) but his devoted second wife Rose (Jasmin Easler). But it takes Troy’s son Cory (Tyrell Reggins) to make him realize the weight of his flawed existence when Cory asks to join his school’s football team, an idea that infuriates Troy due to the unfulfilled potential of his own athletic career lingering in the recesses of his mind.
The domineering Dunford, a fantastic Inspector Javert last season in “Les Misérables,” substantially storms into Wilson’s marvelously authentic world with colorful wit and blustery bravado. Commanding yet intuitive, Dunford is a force to be reckoned with because he brings volatile truth to Troy’s complex journey migrating from reasonable provider one minute to arrogant jerk the next. His dynamically intense moments opposite the sensitive Reggins specifically packs a punch. Still, as Wilson intended, the play doesn’t belong to Dunford by any means. Above all, in Act 2, the outstanding Easler, in a breakthrough performance rooted in a calm sensibility that astutely builds to searing proportions, passionately conveys Rose’s disgust and disappointment upon being told of Troy’s infidelity. Easler’s expert handling of Rose’s explosive monologue, a beautifully written passage detailing her encumbered upbringing and the desires she cast aside for the greater good, becomes a thrilling heartbreaker. The terrific chemistry she nurtured with Dunford from the outset makes the heated moment all the more palpable and profound.
This impressive production, dedicated in memory of the legendary Ruby Dee and co-sponsored by Wright State’s Bolinga Black Cultural Resources Center, also features firm portrayals by charismatic Korey Smith as slick loafer Lyons (Troy’s oldest son from a previous marriage), very endearing Christian Henderson as the mentally challenged Gabriel (Troy’s brother), Ocean Brown and E’Draya Caldwell as cutely inquisitive Raynell (Troy’s daughter), and the aforementioned, amiably easygoing Kinley.
McDowell and Ramsey’s exemplary, Broadway-caliber artistic team includes scenic designer Ryan Sess, lighting designer Sammy Jelinek, costumer Mary Beth McClaughlin, and sound designer Emily Hutton. The duo also supplies inviting music for scene changes ranging from soft jazz to soul-stirring gospel.
Wilson, who passed away in 2005, mastered language, tone and relationships. His insightful depiction of blacks attempting to thrive in an uncertain, unjust America will be felt for generations to come because his plays simply contain a universality that actually transcends race. Do not miss Wright State’s electrifying tribute to his legacy.
“Fences” continues through Sept. 28 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday and 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 90 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call the WSU box office at (937) 775-2500. Patrons are advised the production contains adult language and situations.