Troy Maxson was a talented baseball player who missed out on his chance in the big leagues due to the color barrier being broken after his physical prime. Bitter and angry, Maxson builds many spiritual fences to maintain some semblance of control over his world while simultaneously keeping his family out. This is Fences and it is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
This is my first time seeing an August Wilson work and now I’d like to see a lot more of them. Wilson has a tremendous gift for voice and knows how to tap into the thoughts and emotions of an era. Fences is part of his American Century Cycle where he explores “the heritage and experience of the descendants of Africans in North America. . .over the course of the twentieth century”. This play has a unique storytelling style as the focus is on the days in the life of Troy Maxson. Each scene serves as a vignette of its own. Yet it all holds together seamlessly and focuses on a complicated man who overcame a lot of obstacles, but was constantly defeated by the opponent he saw in the mirror each day.
Denise Chapman and TammyRa’ team up to direct this production and provide steady hands to the work. I was especially impressed with the background work as performers often went into the house and I truly just enjoyed watching the actors through the windows of the house and watching the expressions on their faces telling the stories of their characters. Pacing was incredibly brisk and each performer had a well-defined character. Some moments of violence need tidying up and a couple of confrontations have room for more intensity.
There is some truly sublime work in the supporting cast. Raydell Cordell III shines as Troy’s son, Lyons. The perpetually short of funds musician has a good heart, though his need for money causes him to make a poor life choice. Eric J. Jordan, Sr. exemplifies a best friend as Bono. He truly has Troy’s back, but isn’t afraid to tell him the truth when needed. L. James Wright gives an award worthy performance as Gabriel. He is so believable as the childlike brother (due to a brain injury in World War II) and his innocence and enthusiasm pump life and joy into the Maxson family. Anavie Hope Lyons brings a precociousness to Raynell.
I’ve always been impressed with the work of Brandon Williams, but his performance last night firmly puts him in the upper echelon of Omaha actors. It took me a moment to recognize him at first as his body language had me utterly convinced he was a teenager in his first appearance as Cory and I was hooked until the end. Williams is sensational as the young man trying to find his way in the world under the shadow of his dominant father. Williams has extraordinarily expressive eyes and I enjoyed the stories they told as he dealt with the father he both hated and loved.
Kerri Forrester has one of the warmest speaking voices I have heard and it is extremely well suited to her character of Rose. Rose is the loving mother and the supportive wife, but is certainly no shrinking violet as she has seen the best and worst of Troy. She’ll take care of him and nail him with a bon mot when the need arises. Forrester does an incredible job underplaying the character which adds some fascinating dimensions to her verbal confrontations with Troy as she always makes an emotional choice other than the obvious one.
Anthony Montegut sure found one heavy role for his Playhouse (and possibly acting) debut. Troy Maxson is an amazing study in duality. He’s extremely confident, yet unsure of himself as a man. He loves his family, but does everything in his power to drive them away. He yearns to be strong, but acts out in ways that show he’s fatally weak. This is a truly challenging role and Montegut acquits himself very admirably.
Montegut seems at ease on stage and is capable of moments of great intensity. He’s definitely got the space to play with Maxson’s complexities and I’d like to see his performance at the end of the run to see what blooms. Montegut does need to watch his articulation and slow down his rate of speech a bit.
Jim Othuse has designed an amazing set for this show. An economical brick house serves as the abode of the Maxsons surrounded by a realistic looking tree, broken fence, and telephone pole. Othuse also has some nice lighting effects from a starry night to the sun breaking through the clouds. Ananias Montague has crafted an excellent score with some amazing emotional punch with the twang of a violin string, a melancholic piano, and an ominous drumbeat. Andrew Morgan’s properties help the Maxson house feel like a home. John Gibilisco helps the ambiance with sounds ranging from tweeting birds in the morning to noisy crickets at night. Tamara Tamu Newson’s costumes reflect the period and the economic status of the play’s characters with simple work clothes and dresses.
At one point, Bono references fences being able to keep people out or keep people in and that describes the life of Troy Maxson. He builds fences to maintain control over his world, but in the process, he keeps everything and everyone near to him out.
Fences runs at Omaha Community Playhouse through Feb 12. Tickets are on sale now, starting at $25 and may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, 6915 Cass St., Omaha, NE 68132, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com. Due to strong language and some mature themes, parental discretion is advised. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.
Photo by Colin Conces