The plays by the late chronicler of the African-American experience in the 20th century, August Wilson, arguably seem even better than the last time one saw them. So even if you have seen the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winner “Fences” either during its original Broadway run or during its last Broadway revival in 2010, know that this current production at McCarter Theater, under the direction of Phylicia Rashad, reaffirms it as one of Wilson’s best as well as most popular and successful.
His second play — following “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — in the 10 play cycle that dramatizes each decade of the above century, this unashamedly melodramatic play is among the more emotionally stirring of the his works, although I find myself thinking the same thing about every Wilson play after I see it.
Rashad is no stranger to the Wilson canon. Whether as a director of his work (many regional productions) or as an actor (she played 285-year-old Aunt Ester in McCarter’s “Gem of the Ocean” in 2005), she has a firm grip on the content and context of this play that comes to Princeton following an engagement at the Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut.
One of the more conventionally structured of Wilson’s plays, “Fences” focuses on a low-income, inner-city family during the 1950s. Ex-con Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett) is a strong, belligerent, prideful trash collector who has forged a home and an insular world of dignity for himself and his family. Through his combustible and complex relationship with his best friend and one-time jail-mate Jim Bono (fine acting by Phil McGlaston), Troy harbors memories of himself as a promising slugger in the Negro League. That was before he scrapped his youthful dreams for a path that seemed to be the only one for an impoverished black man.
I have vivid memories of both James Earl Jones in the original 1987 production and Denzel Washington in the 2010 Broadway revival. But Pritchett steps right up to the plate to give a compelling, persuasive performance as the blustery, inflexible patriarch who questions whether the fence he is putting up around his home and small piece of property is meant to keep people out or to keep his family in. Pritchett unquestionably anchors this production through the sheer force of a portrayal that grows in intensity and sensitivity from one harrowing scene to the next. Without a doubt, he stands tall alongside the renowned actors who preceded him in this awesome role.
Saddled with lengthy, difficult-to-navigate monologues that would tax a less magnetic actor, Pritchett’s charm and machismo keeps us glued to every word. This is particularly evident in the way he manipulates the feelings of his not-to-be-coddled wife Rose, as played by Portia. Though having (or using) only one name, Portia shows us many sides of Rose’s personality, as well as the options of a devoted wife whose love is suddenly compromised by her husband’s infidelity.
G. Alverez Reid is poignant as Troy’s brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, who earns little more than Troy’s passively fraternal concern. Jared McNeill makes a fine and genial impression as Troy’s oldest mostly out-of-work musician son, Lyons, who stops by every Friday for a handout.
But the real dramatic conflict comes in Troy’s relationship with his younger son, Cory (a vigorous and impassioned performance by Chris Myers), an ambitious, talented high school senior who has been singled out by a football team recruiter. Mistrusting the white world and unable to accept the possibility that Cory may succeed where he failed, Troy alienates Cory with his unyielding behavior. Filled with psychological hang-ups and fixated with an inbred fear of being exploited and victimized by whites, Troy refuses to see how changing times are offering his son an opportunity that he never had.
Pritchett has found a way for us to see through Troy’s irrational outbursts and tirades and also see deeply into this complex man. Unwilling to channel love directly to his younger son, unable to restrain himself from being unfaithful to Rose, and incapable of finding peace in his own heart, Troy is as unsentimentally conceived as he is poignantly real. Except for Wilson’s penchant for more-is-more and for a resolution that seems awkwardly tacked on, “Fences” is dramatic theater at its grandest.
John Iacovelli’s setting — the back of a two story brick home, dirt backyard with its one big tree — is evocative of the Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood in 1957. It’s where the extended Maxson family has learned to confront demons as fearlessly as they also courageously reconsider their dreams.
Fences, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, February 9. $20 to $87.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.