Jun 18, 2017

Theater Review: Long Beach Playhouse's "Fences" (2017)

It takes a lot to make a character as complex as Troy Maxon. He is a proud man who brags about being a great baseball player and having an even better work ethic that allows him to be self-reliant. The only issue is that even at his funniest moment of bragging, there is a sense of tragedy. He can criticize others, but finds it difficult to accept the reality that he is a middle-aged garbage collector whose glory days appear to be behind him. If that wasn't bad enough, he doesn't seem keen to let his own children have it better than him, for fear that the world will treat them as negatively as they did him; an issue made more complex thanks to the changing racial climate that August Wilson's "Fences" takes place in. With a great central cast, the Long Beach Playhouse production took a simple drama that took place in one family's backyard and managed to explore not only how complicated a character Troy is, but how toxic holding onto a bitter past can be. It's a powerful drama, and one that doesn't need much to win over the audience. 

The most recognizable part of "Fences" immediately is the dialogue. Just as quickly as Troy (Damon Rutledge) and lifelong pal Jim Bono (Rayshawn Chism) enter the room, the dialogue feels like it has already gone through five sentences. The details are all present even if they're sometimes spoken at breakneck speed, managing to show Troy's personal life as it compares to his family. He shares drinks with Bono while sharing stories about "rassling" with the devil to his wife Rose (Teri Gamble), trying to make himself sound like a great man. It's all a story, but it helps to give a sense of the audacious dreams of this one man. He has clearly worked hard for this simple plot of land, and he comes across as a typical father figure that is a curmudgeon about money and candid about how much he loves his wife, who serves early on more as a reprimanding figure of control to Troy's manic instability. 
The action happens so quickly that it's a miracle that the acting doesn't suffer, and in fact is used with excellent precision. The faster that Troy talks, the more insecure he is. He establishes dominance through not allowing others to talk while standing behind his "old ways of doing things." He doesn't want his sons doing less traditional careers of jazz music and football. He assumes that they will be let down, telling their children in this backyard about how bad they had it. Troy slowly unravels just how scarred his life has been and how he deeply regrets being a man born too early. He watches the world succeed around him, and all he can do is get promoted at his less than glamorous job. Even with loved ones surrounding him, he feels longing for something greater, and he expresses that often in long monologues that take up most of the small set, including a baseball hanging from a metaphorical tree. By the end of the first act, the good of Troy has been established with the second tackling something deeper and darker.
It is in the second half that the cast also gets to have moments on par with most of Troy's first act. Troy is a man beaten down and whose scratchy voice shows a desperation for acceptance that is never truly spoken. Rose becomes more of a central figure who finally blows up at him for not recognizing her needs. The family expresses frustration in ways just as repressive as Troy's insecurity. Everyone has issues, and what makes the drama more impressive is that this is layered with subtle comedy in the supporting cast. In one scene, Troy and Rose are having a heart to heart conversation as Troy's mentally challenged brother Gabriel (Darnell Trujeque) eats a sandwich in bizarre fashion. It adds a natural familiarity to the scene and manages to create levity for a drama that gets as shocking as it does intense as things continue. Even then, it ends with some bittersweet optimism to Troy's story.
As a whole, "Fences" is a show that requires great actors with a levity to not only deliver the lines fast, but with a deep and bruised passion. For the most part, the central cast here delivers something powerful and intense in its raw form. It's a heartbreaking story with some laughs, all often within the same scene. The setting may be limited to "The Maxon's backyard," but there's a sense that the audience knows everything beyond it. These are characters as human as they are, and their struggles feature the flaws of being born in certain environments. It helps that the writing expertly depicts Troy as a hero before showing his flaws, as it allows the negative details to seem more critical than merely antagonistic. It's a powerful story from a great playwright, and it's thankful that the Long Beach Playhouse got together a cast who brought it to life with such intensity that it doesn't take much to be compelled by anything that happens. Even at the start, it feels like they know more than they should. It only gets better from there. 

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