Review: ‘Fences’ works both ways at Pioneer Theatre Company

"Fences," a Pioneer Theatre Company production, stars (clockwise from lower right) Michael Anthony Williams, Jeorge Bennett Watson, Biko Eisen-Martin, Gayle Samuels and Jefferson A. Russell. Photo courtesy: PTC

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Jan. 9, 2017 (Gephardt Daily) — It takes most of the play for lead character Troy Maxson to secure the last picket around his modest home in “Fences,” now being staged by Pioneer Theatre Company.

And by the time it’s over, Troy has learned that fences cannot keep loved ones close or hard times out, or even protect a person from himself.

It’s a harsh lesson deftly driven home by a cast of seven, with most or all actors appearing in their PTC premieres.

The 1983 play, by American playwright August Wilson, is the sixth in a 10-play series that explores the changing black experience. “Fences” won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.

Troy, played by Michael Anthony Williams, starts the play, set in 1950, as a man of modest means, who has built up his life after both bad luck and decisions in his youth. He has a menial job moving barrels at a local company, a wife who is devoted to him, and two sons of whom he does not entirely approve.

If you’ve seen a previous stage production or one of the two films made, you won’t be surprised that the N-word is used liberally in this show, which features only black actors.

Troy gives his full pay to wife Rose every Friday, and hopes to make it to the next Friday without any financial emergencies he doesn’t have savings to handle.

Troy’s best friend is Bono (Jeorge Bennett Watson), and the two men spend the first scene joking about old times, with Troy, jovial and relaxed, as the master storyteller.

Before the drama ends, Williams will portray many more moods of Troy, including bitter regret and a desperation to experience more than he can find between the fence posts that mark the rigid confines of his world.

Williams makes a brilliant, seamless transition as he fleshes out Troy’s character, showing him first as a jester, but slowly revealing him as a weary soul with deep wounds, thick scar tissue, and a life-defining inability to heal.

Watson is natural as Bono, who watches his best friend slowly change into someone else. Jefferson A. Russell plays Gabriel, Troy’s mentally disabled brother, injured in World War II. Russell makes Gabriel’s confusion seem both justified and authentic.

Gayle Samuels, as wife Rose, is brilliant as Troy’s supportive helpmate whose deepest thoughts and hidden fears are laid bare after a major plot twist.

Biko Eisen-Martin is cool and convivial in his role of Troy’s musician son from an earlier relationship. It’s a part that also has an emotional transition, as do nearly all the roles in this dramatic gem, which has been likened to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in terms of lead characters.

One of the biggest changes is in Cory (Jimmie “J.J.” Jeter), son of Rose and Troy, who is a hopeful, less broken version of his father. Jeter captures Cory in all his youth, angst and pride.

Set design by Tony Cisek captures the spare, no-frills residence that hasn’t seen fresh paint in decades. It’s built next to a dying tree, solid and strong in its better days, and backed up by a dirt hill where nothing green grows.

By chance rather than design, “Fences” is also in movie theaters right now, in a version directed by and starring Denzel Washington.

What Pioneer Theatre’s version can give you that the acclaimed film version cannot is the immediacy that comes in a live stage production, the tension created as you wait for an actor in the same room with you to end a dramatic pause and speak his next sentences, and the knowledge that this precise performance will never be seen again.

And, no offense to Mr. Washington, but it’s also easier for a lesser known actor to disappear completely into a role and make an audience believe he is who he’s depicting.

Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “Fences” feels honest, real, at first lighthearted and ultimately heartbreaking. Much of the audience, and even the leading man, got teary by the end of opening night. And theater that makes you feel real emotions and think about life’s choices is good theater.

It’s a show well-worth seeing. For more  information on PTC’s production of “Fences,” which continues through Jan. 21, click here.

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