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Review: August Wilson's 'Fences' is poetic, powerful

Leah C. Gardiner has said Troy Maxson, the central character in August Wilson's "Fences," is tragic in the sense that King Lear is tragic. It is a provocative notion.

Like Lear, Troy is a force of nature. Like Lear, he is given to raving. Like Lear, he is prideful, wrathful and his own worst enemy. And like that pagan king, he battles with his children.

The Pulitzer and Tony-winning "Fences," which opened in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre on Saturday, was ably directed by Gardiner, who is one of six new directors OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch is bringing to the festival this year. Actor Charles Robinson, who is also new to the festival, breathed a raging fire of life into Troy.

It is 1957, and Troy and his family live in Pittsburgh's hardscrabble Hill District, which is limned gracefully by designer Scott Bradley's funky brick buildings and towering smokestacks. The beginnings of the civil rights struggle are barely a dream, and equal opportunity nonexistent. By working for nearly two decades as a garbage man - and poaching on the disability benefits of his disabled veteran brother - Troy has managed to buy the family home, and it is his little kingdom.

Troy and pal Bono (Josiah Phillips) on Friday nights drink and banter in a ritual that becomes a talking blues, with the friends riffing off each other. Troy's interactions with his wife, Rose, (Shona Tucker) are filled with sexual innuendo and joking, but we soon get beneath the surface to a world of pain and bitterness and broken dreams.

Troy left his native Alabama and an abusive father at 14, drifted into a life of crime and wound up serving 15 years in prison for killing a man he was robbing. He later played baseball in the Negro Leagues and blames a racist system for his never having played in the major leagues, although in truth he was simply too old.

Rose spurned other suitors, married Troy and has put all her hopes into him. She is a strong woman, and devoid of self-pity, and Tucker endows her with an easy grace that enables her to bear the slings and arrows of a marriage to a seething cauldron. This is a complex stage marriage.

Troy and Rose's son, Cory, 17 and representing a new generation of northern blacks, is a talented football player being sought by a college recruiter. But Troy says the system is rigged so that black men have no future in organized sports, and demands that Troy spend his time after school working in the local A&P.

Wilson, who was perhaps America's leading playwright in his later years, believed white Americans don't really see black people, and that some things are hidden from black Americans because of the way they look at themselves. Never an agitator for change, he preferred to show the human cost of racism in the mangled lives and impacted rage of people like Troy. But other people, people like Rose, are capable of great nobility. Wilson isn't known for strong women characters, but Rose puts the lie to that.

And yet she has her being in a play that's largely about manhood. If Troy is a phenomenal force of manhood twisted into something dark and gone awry, Cory must take a stand against Troy to find his own manhood.

The play's title is its central metaphor. Rose wants Troy to build a fence around the family's small property. She wants to keep her loved ones in, to hold them close. When Troy finally accepts the idea of a fence, it's to keep people out. The through-action of the play is the attempt to fence people in or out, and how that influences those around us.

Gardiner is a lyrical director who often arranges her actors and their speeches like stanzas in poems. Sometimes this plays into Wilson's strength as a chronicler with an ear to the poetry of everyday speech, as in Troy's powerful scene of trying to shout down the devil. At other times it's stretched thin by Wilson's central vice, which is a corollary of his strength: he writes. My, does he write.

Wilson's characters talk and they talk. This leads to places in which you suddenly get the feeling that Troy, for instance, seems to be repeating himself. The first act of "Fences" is filled with exposition, which is OK. But in the second act, when things get cracking and the real stuff is coming down hot and heavy, some of the dramatic power is squandered by Wilson's verbosity, which leads to people standing around talking. "Fences" runs nearly three hours and would probably be more powerful if held under two-and-a-half.

Unlike Lear, Troy never glimpses the truth, never declares himself a fool or laments. In the end, what hope there is in "Fences" will have to come from the next generation. So it is in families. If it seems precarious, it is often all that we have. "Fences" plays through July 6 in the Bowmer.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Troy Maxson (Charles Robinson, right) and his wife Rose (Shona Tucker) welcome a new member of the family to their home. - Photo by David Cooper