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[whitespace] Walled In: Try (Anthony J. Haney) and his wife, Rose (Gloria Weinstock) struggle to keep their family together in 'Fences.'

Battling Barriers

In August Wilson's 'Fences,' past pains weigh heavily on Troy Maxson and his family

By Heather Zimmerman

TROY MAXSON SPENDS the better part of 1957 building a picket fence around his yard, at his wife's request--one of those household projects that never seems to end--but the hero of August Wilson's Fences has faced far more daunting walls in his lifetime. Fences explores boundaries, both actual and figurative, within society, within personal relationships and within ourselves. TheatreWorks offers an outstanding production of Wilson's touching and complex drama.

It's hard to imagine a character with a moniker more symbolically fitting than Troy. Playwright Wilson has given the main character the same name as that city legendary both for having an impenetrable fortification and for unknowingly having had a hand in breaching its own defenses. After weathering a lifetime of grief, Troy has become his own Trojan horse; his difficult past lingers with him every day, insidiously sabotaging his present.

As Troy, Anthony J. Haney beautifully captures every nuance of the character, a proud and talented African American man whose soul has been slowly ground down by years of discrimination. A dutiful provider for his family, Troy works resignedly at getting through everyday life. But Troy's cynicism, his thunderous sternness toward his son Cory (Cyril Jamal Cooper) and even his bawdy affection for his wife, Rose (Gloria Weinstock), are all tinged with a vulnerability that suggests that he has never gotten over the disappointments of his youth.

In 1957 Pittsburgh, middle-aged Troy works as a garbage collector, hauling trash while his white co-workers drive the garbage trucks, an obvious disparity in workload that has led him to file a complaint with the labor board. In his younger years, Troy was a baseball player in the Negro Leagues; segregation in the then all-white major leagues halted his career. When Cory shows similar promise in football, Troy, fearing his son will face the same insurmountable obstacles, forbids him to play.

Troy's decision about Cory's future sparks a division in the family that has been quietly growing, helped along equally by Troy's infidelity to Rose. Emotions run ragged and high in nearly every scene, but director Harry Elam keeps the energy reined in until these characters are at their absolute breaking points.

As Rose, Weinstock provides an impressive match for Haney's Troy, showing strength to be reckoned with behind her silent self-restraint and good nature. Cooper's Cory, often cowed by his father, is capable, just like Troy, of roaring anger when pushed too far too much, but at the core of his rage is anguished hope for fatherly approval.

The supporting cast turns in excellent performances all around, in particular Colman Domingo as Troy's brother, a World War II veteran whose head injury has made him delusional, and Peter J. Macon as Lyons, Troy's son from a previous marriage, whose devil-may-care ways contrast starkly with Troy's pent-up bitterness.

Andrea Bechert's set design provides detailed realism with a rendering of the front porch and yard of Troy's and Rose's house, convincing down to each weathered board and fallen leaf. Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting complements the set well, bathing it in natural hues that evoke everything from an autumn sunset to the pale light of early morning.

It's from realism that Wilson draws the power of this play, creating both a provocative family drama and a larger comment on society's wrongs. Troy's hurt is so profound that he hurts those he loves without ever fully realizing how much. It never seems, however, that he can't help himself, only that he is so weary of life that he has squelched much of his own finer feeling. Fences deeply personalizes racism, showing in minutest detail its destructive power on the human soul and both the pain and strength it exacts to prevail over it.

Fences plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (Wednesday, April 5, at 7:30pm, and Saturday, March 25, at 2pm) and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through April 9 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$37. (650.903.6000)

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From the March 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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