Wednesday, March 16, 2016

At Indiana Repertory Theatre, August Wilson's cycle of plays set on The Hill aims for 'Fences' once again

Steeped in recorded blues and black gospel music when the stage action pauses, Indiana Repertory Theatre's "Fences" has parallels to music in its fondness for refrains as well as free fantasias. Characters spin stories of ambition and survival into the ether, but also find themselves repeatedly grounded, serving detention in the school of hard knocks.

Troy Maxson and Jim Bono share laughs and booze after work.
In his 2012 direction of IRT's "Radio Golf," another in August Wilson's 10-play cycle of 20th-century life in a Pittsburgh district called the Hill, Lou Bellamy displayed what I called "an almost symphonic feeling for contrast." By that I meant a way of pitting opposite themes against each other and achieving the kind of challenging moral blend characteristic of Wilson's work.

As seen Tuesday night, there's an exuberance about this process that was immediately captured as a laughing Troy Maxson (David Alan Anderson) and his best friend Jim Bono (Marcus Naylor) tumble upon the scene of the Maxson home. The show's period-perfect residence is designed in exquisitely crafted detail by Vicki Smith and lit in warm, carefully shopworn tones by Don Darnutzer.

Bellamy's hand is again sure in this production. The stubborn vitality of urban black life, existentially hemmed in by racism undergoing slow, wrenching change in 1957, was immediately engaged. In such straitened circumstances, bitterness can be held at bay for a while, but the effort is too much for Troy's  anguished, forceful personality. He clings to the myth of lower-middle-class values, the rewards attendant upon hard work and family, but his past struggles feed a larger myth: the professional baseball stardom he feels might have been his.

In his front yard, Troy Maxson relives baseball glory for his wife, Rose.
Anderson's physical and vocal poise, confidence, and energy as an actor can threaten to turn his cast mates into iron filings patterned around his magnet. Directorial brio and the vividness of the other performances maintain the show's ensemble feeling, however, particularly Kim Staunton as Troy's wife, Rose. Wilson never sets up an important relationship that he doesn't wring dry;  much is demanded of Staunton, particularly in the second act, when the family fabric comes unraveled.

Troy's ferocity and determination to command his own little world came through consistently in Anderson's portrayal. It particularly underlined the pathos of his son Cory's situation; he's thwarted by his father's penchant for control and eventually driven from home. Edgar Sanchez modulated his rage well in the role of the normally compliant Cory, as the teen is goaded to rise violently against his father's emotional abuse.
Raynell (Elise Kelisah Benson) and Cory (Edgar Sanchez) share memories of a father and his song.

Yet in what he says about his past, we learn enough about Troy's vulnerable nature, a fragility he works to keep hidden with bluster and bullying, to wish Anderson showed it more. When Cory tries to find out why his father doesn't like him, for example, Anderson's Troy vociferously dismisses the question mockingly and indignantly.

Visual evidence that Troy is truly taken aback by the question, that it gives him pause and takes the shine off his bravado, was lacking. It's at least an arguable nuance of the character Wilson created. In some sense, therefore, as captivating as Anderson's cyclonic virtuosity is as Troy Maxson, the role of Roosevelt Hicks, the amoral up-and-comer in "Radio Golf," seems more perfectly suited to him.

Marcus Naylor gave a best-friend authenticity to Jim Bono, and reflected how painfully his loyalty was tested to the breaking point by Troy's straying nature. James T. Alfred performed buoyantly as the jazz-musician son of Troy by a different woman, and Terry Bellamy bewildered and delighted as Troy's brain-damaged brother, a gentle street peddler and self-appointed guardian against the hounds of hell.

In the last scene, Elise Keliah Benson as Raynell, the result of Troy's unfaithfulness, tenderly suggested the persistence of hope for this family. Symbolized by the fence that at length encloses the front yard, the solidity of a household that Troy helped create as well as damage endures.

So does his song, in the voices of the half-siblings Raynell and Cory, about the faithful hunting dog Blue, who treed possums in a hollow log and even on Noah's ark. The tragedy of Troy Maxson is that he was just as determined as Blue, but much less adaptable. Previously presented by IRT in 1996, the story strikes home once again in the current production.

[Production photos by Zach Rosing]