Fences, perhaps the best-known of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of American drama, gets a fair shake with the Ford’s Theatre production going on now until October 27. Parts of it are brilliant, other parts just OK, but for a play obsessed with responsibility and what one owes, this much must be said: It more than fulfills its obligations.
Engrossingly directed by Timothy Douglas, Fences concerns itself with (studies, really) one Troy Maxson (D.C. mainstay Craig Wallace) — husband, father, brother, sanitation worker, and former star of Negro leagues baseball. He and his wife Rose (Erika Rose, heartbreaking) and 17-year-old son Cory (Justin Weaks is touching but far too old for the part) share a modest-but-comfortable home in — you guessed it — Pittsburgh. At least, their home feels comfortable, but damned if their fights don’t keep spilling out into the backyard.
Fights over money. Fights over extended family. And for a while the most crucial fight is over Cory’s future — he wants to play football, and a college recruiter is interested, but Maxson’s bitterness from his own experience of racial discrimination while trying to play baseball (or, perhaps, it’s simply jealousy?) has him staunchly opposed.
Wallace’s stentorian tones sound too refined for an illiterate, Alabama-born son of a sharecropper, but he hides from none the character’s worst traits, stepping up to bat and swinging away at Troy’s brute selfishness and hypocrisy just as much as his warmth and well-traveled candor. Wallace has the guts to play Maxson as a charismatic monster, and there’s a hard-won nugget of theatrical truth in that. Even if you’ve seen Fences before, you’ll leave feeling like you know it better.
As Troy’s much-better half, Rose-playing-Rose hopscotches nimbly over the clichés of a put-upon ’50s housewife, filling Wilson’s dialogue with fervor and recrimination. Rose gets but all the way inside the character’s head, whether she’s facing the biggest crisis of her life or simply trying to cook supper.
A trio of strong supporting performances from Doug Brown, KenYatta Rogers, and Jefferson A. Russell gives the pathos its death by a thousand cuts. Is this the Century Cycle’s saddest play? It can compete.
Helen Huang’s spot-on costumes and Andrew R. Cissna’s meticulous lighting design are everything this show could hope for. Both of their work particularly stands out during a brief, dappled night scene. I’m less wild about Lauren Halpern’s set: Actors keep dragging their feet on the cardboard “dirt,” and the huge sepia photographic backdrop makes everything feel very placed, almost preciously, in the past.
That is not the idea. No matter what decade Wilson was working it, it was meant to feel like the here and now. And, at times, this Fences feels forcefully present.
It certainly gets its due.