★★★★½ - Delicious
Standing ovations are quite the thing these days, but the cast and crew of Fences more than earned their ovation at Nevada Conservatory Theatre with a high energy, emotionally draining performance of August Wilson’s (arguably) best play.
Harry Waters, Jr. paced the evening immaculately, and nurtured believable, co-dependent relationships that were truthful, conflicted, and frequently humorous. The title refers to barriers, of course, and the symbolic fence barrier is being physically completed in the homestead’s backyard. But the drama is all about people challenged by their own limitations; people at once being kept in place, and being shut out of opportunities by complex occurrences, often of their own doing.
The other powerful metaphor is the National Pastime. Mr. Wilson sets his story in 1950’s Pittsburgh, and the paterfamilias, Troy, is an embittered former aspiring ball player. He is convinced that race unfairly denied him his shot. During intermittent conflicts, “striking out” serves to ground the debate in the framework of blatant inequality in an All-American sport, one that had only just grudgingly admitted one black player.
Mr. Waters has gifted the proceedings with fluid blocking, naturally evolving stage pictures, and a keen sense of motivated “beats” that propel the characters’ actions.
Jasmine Boykin has provided a beautifully evocative setting, with its earth-colored brick walls and realistic two-story house, flanked by grayish building facades stage right and left that add a slightly surreal containment to the space, in effect becoming two other large “fences” behind which other life stories are being played out.
Gabrielle Lewis has authentically captured the rather rumpled look of lower middle class period dress. The lighting design by Amanda Valdez was admirably realized. The show begins late afternoon, with its rather harsh pre-dusk glare and subtly, Ms. Valdez morphed into sunset colors, and then the deeper hues of early evening. This attention to detail marked her solid work throughout the evening. Josh Schmidt’s sound design was notable for its considerable nuance and apt musical choices.
Truth in advertising: I was fortunate to have seen the original production with the remarkable original cast, and James Earl Jones’ towering performance remains one of the most overwhelming I have ever seen. His persona and artistry still loom large over any production of this iconic play.
That said, James A. Williams as Tory anchored the show with a vocally forceful, physically engaged, dramatically compelling traversal that had true star power. He completely embodied the man’s parallel care for his obligations, and his self-centered regard for his bruised ego. His volatile shifts of manner and intent were mesmerizing to watch, with the “I don’t got to like you” speech alone worth the price of admission.
As his devoted wife, Rose, Deanna Reed-Foster was every bit his equal, matching him zinger for zinger and limning her gentle, unwavering loyalty with an enjoyable peppering of sass. Her encounters with her son provide memorable moments of loving interactions, especially when it is tough love. Her famous, scene-ending tag line (I won’t give it away)when she learns of her husband’s exploits, prompted a spontaneous ripple of support from the rapt opening night crowd.
As the self-assured, sometime defiant son Cory, Tavius Cortez started the night a bit straightforward and generic. As events progressed, Mr. Cortez found the individual nature of the lad, whose dream may be thwarted by a resentful father. His warm interaction with the delightful young Yussia Sanders (Raynelle) was heart gladdening and cathartic.
Alfred Wilson was a personable, enjoyable Bono, Tory’s longstanding sidekick, especially when the two were bantering about sexual peccadillos. His genial delivery at the top of the show was occasionally hard to catch, especially as we are just getting used to the writing. Delius Doherty gave us a slick take on Lyons, a smooth operator who makes good on his promises. Rounding out the excellent ensemble, Mareld “Bubba” Knight, Jr. invested Gabriel with honest pathos and lovability. His brief appearances were so winning that we looked forward to his every return, and Mr. Knight triumphantly closed out the story with a well calibrated final effect.
Although Mr. Wilson specifically sets out to document the African-American experience, Fences deals with so many universal truths that it cannot help but win over any avid theatre enthusiast.
Troy: James A. Williams; Bono: Alfred Wilson; Rose: Deanna Reed-Foster; Lyons: Delius Doherty; Gabriel: Mareld “Bubba” Knight, Jr.; Cory: Tavius Cortez: Raynell: Yussia Sanders; Director: Harry Waters, Jr.; Set Design: Jasmine Boykin; Costume Design: Gabrielle Lewis; Lighting Design: Amanda Valdez; Sound Design: Josh Schmidt