John Beasley, Crystal Fox, and Brandon J. Dirden
in Fences
(© Eric Antoniou)
John Beasley, Crystal Fox, and Brandon J. Dirden
in Fences
(© Eric Antoniou)
More than two decades after is Broadway debut, August Wilson's award-winning Fences, now being revived by the Huntington Theatre Company, retains its power to move audiences. Directed here with hard-charging vitality by Wilson's late-life collaborator Kenny Leon and performed by a superb, cohesive cast, the current production is one that demands to be seen.

Based solely on its core elements, Fences might seem to be the stuff of soap opera, yet so brilliant is Wilson's handling of the plot turns that the play has a near-Shakespearean density and heft. It concerns 53-year-old Troy Maxson (John Beasley), a man who has come to terms with the limitations of his life -- almost. True, he has a nagging case of the woulda-coulda-shouldas: he's convinced that, had the color barrier in baseball been broken in time for him to partake, he'd have been a major star. And he's mobilizing for a promotion at work from garbage hauler to driver. But he has at least one loyal -- indeed, worshipful -- friend, Jim Bono, to support him in his self-mythologizing .(Eugene Lee is a master of subtlety in the role.)

Even more important, Troy has the benefit of what appears to be a strong and passionate marriage to Rose (Crystal Fox). one of those wife-knows-best helpmeets in The Honeymooners mode. She's far more patient and affectionate than Audrey Meadows's Alice, but similar intonations and postures of bemused exasperation are lurking there. Indeed, Rose is no starry-eyed pushover; she's ready to put her foot down as needed -- for instance, when Troy tries to quash their son's dreams of athletic achievement.

"How come you ain't never liked me?" Cory Maxson (the coiled yet incandescent Warner Miller) comes right out and asks his dad. Troy's response is to lecture his son about what makes a man a man: the willingness to shoulder responsibility. However, it's clear that Troy's unease with his son's dreams lies in his discomfort over his own -- deflected, deferred, and now given up for dead. As Troy's posturing in the opening scenes gives way to revelations about his past and present, we sit transfixed as a giant of a man is gradually whittled down to ordinary human size.

Wilson exhibited an extraordinary ability to empathize with every single character he created. Some of the regrets that Rose gives voice to seem as if they could only come from within a woman's heart and mind. Even Troy's brain-damaged war-veteran brother, Gabriel (a towering Bill Nunn, his eyes lit up like a child's), has a world-view that makes interior sense.

As the various vectors of intrafamilial tension -- including the plight of Troy's older son Lyons (Brandon J. Dirden) -- play out on Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's photo-realist urban backyard set, we're seemingly transported to another reality packed with familiar emotions, and the experience is as jolting as a journey home.