One of the hardest realizations in life is that expectations often exceed likelihood, that dreams are not always fulfilled, that aspirations don’t always come to fruition. Such is the case in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama FENCES, about an African-American family dealing with broken dreams and shattered promises in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1957. The second production by People’s Light & Theatre Company from Wilson’s “Century Cycle” (following its 2012 staging of SEVEN GUITARS, set in the 1940s), FENCES is an engaging and profound examination of very human characters dealing with very challenging circumstances, in a story that interweaves harsh realities with mythic visions, humor with heartbreak, and estrangement with the hope of healing.
A superb ensemble, under the expert direction of Kamilah Forbes, brings psychological depth and three-dimensionality to the complex roles, while beautifully mastering Wilson’s poetic vernacular. We feel connected to them, we care about them, and hope that their lives will change for the better. As Troy Maxson—once a star of Negro League baseball, now a sanitation worker—Michael Genet captures all the conflicts and contradictions, the discrimination and injustices, the frailties and flaws that define his character’s self-image and inter-relationships as a husband and father. Genet’s riveting performance is both magnetic and volatile, as he jokes with a friend, embellishes his back stories, and reminisces about his past triumphs, but also thwarts his son’s promising future, and compromises his longtime marriage to a loving and devoted wife. He is a study in the devastating impact of racism in America, economic pressures, overwhelming familial responsibilities, and the absence of a solid role model in his early life; he is an embittered man who feels trapped in his situation, but ultimately must be accountable for his own hurtful actions.
Brian Anthony Wilson is fully captivating as Troy’s best friend Jim Bono, a jovial and likeable man who drinks with him, listens to him, then gently admonishes him about the consequences of his infidelity, and learns and grows from his bad example. Melanye Finister portrays all the geniality and nurturing, then anger and pain, of the self-sacrificing wife and mother Rose, the glue of Troy’s extended family, who refuses to hold his children responsible for “the sins of the father.” And Ruffin Prentiss is heart-wrenching as Troy’s teenage son Cory, painfully sensitive, quietly brave, insightful about his father’s motivations and his inability to recognize change (as slow as it is); he is the innocent victim who is denied one life-altering opportunity, but finds the strength to pursue another and to fulfill his potential. Rounding out the fine supporting cast are Wendell Franklin as Troy’s elder but less mature son Lyons, G. Alvarez Reid as his injured and delusional brother Gabriel, and the delightful Cameron Hicks as his young daughter Raynell. Though the ending seems a little too easy and the resolution comes a bit too quickly, FENCES is a compelling analysis of social dynamics in the troubled times of the 1950s, and its production by People’s Light is deeply affecting. [Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern] September 10-October 5, 2014; peopleslight.org.