When you think of August Wilson, the powerful men in his plays spring to mind—men like Troy Maxson in FENCES, for whom life is an everyday struggle. There is, of course, Ma Rainey but aside from the Blues singer, you wouldn’t automatically cite him for his women’s roles. After watching Gloucester Stage’s sinewy production of FENCES (playing through Sept. 7th), I’ve changed my mind. He’s written a heck of a part for Rose Maxson, Troy’s invincible wife. (I’ve seen many productions of FENCES where Troy is the sole dominating force. The difference at Gloucester is Jacqui Parker.)
Rose’s towering presence informs every scene. Even when she’s not on stage, she figures in almost every conversation. It’s her strength, Troy says, that “carries me through to the next Friday.” And, when her faith is tested, it’s Rose who saves the family. After seeing Jacqui Parker’s tour de force as the rock solid Rose, I like the idea of “balance” in director Eric Engel’s production. It tips in Troy’s direction when he disciplines his son rather harshly, making family decisions on his own. Then it tips the other way when the “greater good” is in the balance.
There’s plenty of suffering to go around in FENCES. Daver Morrison as Troy captures the frustration and disappointment of being passed over (as a child, by his father; as a ballplayer, by the segregated leagues; at work, by his white bosses) and he manages to convey the fear of being abandoned (as his mother had done) all while he postures his braggadocio. You can see perfectly well where his past will lead him. Pity is, he can’t see it. Instead, he builds a fence to keep his family in. (Rose believes in spiritual fences; She sings “Jesus be a fence around me” as she hangs out the wash.)
Troy alienates just about everyone: He won’t listen to advice from his best friend (Gregory Marlow), he belittles his older son (Warren Jackson) for being “lazy,” and he denies his young son (Jared Michael Brown) the chance to play football, a decision which reverberates far beyond “sports.” He can’t see that he’s done to his son what racism did to him, denying him the chance to cross over from the “Negro Leagues.” The color barrier was broken but too late for him. “You’re born with two strikes on you,” he says, using baseball metaphors as if it keeps him in the game.
Wilson packs FENCES with metaphors, none so prevalent as Troy’s severely damaged brother, Gabriel, (Jermel Nakia) who in this production is physically disabled as well as mentally challenged. He’s usually portrayed as a sweet, childlike presence but at Gloucester he’s an unpredictable, flailing accident waiting to happen (which made me wonder why no one took him under their wing). One of the best performances in the play is turned in by Bezawit Strong as the character with the ability to heal any wound. She’s simply luminous.