Review: Fences by The City Theatre Company
by Michael Meigs

The City Theatre production of August Wilson's Fences is powerful, intelligent, deep, universal and fully realized. It is by far the most impressive modern drama staged to date in this Austin theatre season. This is theatre not to be missed.

The year is 1957, but it could be any time in history. The place is a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, like that in which August Wilson grew up, but it could be any close-knit community. August Wilson has crafted for us a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, with a protagonist greater than ordinary men, one who has overcome immense adversity to establish a secure home for himself and his family. Troy Maxson, formerly a star baseball player in the Negro League, strives to preserve his gains but he is eventually brought low by character flaws in part inherent to his successes.

Yes, this is a play about the black experience in America, and those unique qualities of relationships, language, tradition, humor and social disadvantage are depicted with vividness and authenticity. There is not a false note anywhere in the script, the acting or the presentation. Congratulations to director Lisa Jordan and her cast. And to City Theatre's Andy Berkovsky for superbly evocative sound design.

Yet the themes and conflicts are universal -- a father's stern rigidity with his son, seeking to make him strong enough to overcome a world the father has known to be dangerous; the family as refuge against accident and disaster, whatever the origin; and the promise and compromise of marriage, that deep relation buffeted by disappointments and dependent upon mutual trust. 

Robert Pellette, Jr., Rod Crain (photo: City Theatre)
Troy Maxson retired from baseball after the age of 40 and has worked since then as a garbage man, riding with a partner on the back of a sanitation truck. He recently had the audacity to ask management why all the workers were black while the drivers were white; they refered him to the union. We meet Maxson, played by Robert Pellette, Jr., (left) coming home on payday with his friend Jim Bono (Rod Crain, right). They share a pint, laugh and joke with one another and then with Troy's wife Rose (Gina Hudson).

Robert Pellette, Jr., Prince Camp (photo: City Theatre)Appearing in Maxson's yard with its unfinished fence are, first, his brother Gabriel, an affable but deranged older man invalided home from World War II with a head wound, and, later, Lyons (Prince Camp, right), Maxson's son from a former marriage, who's a dapper, unemployed musician in search of a loan. Camp's portrayal is sly and appealing.

Robert Pellette as Troy Maxson is astonishing -- heavyset, voluble, energetic, concentrated and mercurial, whether making up tall tales, teasing wife and friends, fiercely reproving his sons, or, in his moments of greatest extremity, entering into dialogue with unseen Death. He is a life force, a man who has survived through hard work, talent and determination.  The cost of his practical victories has been high. In part because of the deep deprivation of his own childhood, he is harshly dismissive of the efforts of his son Cory to win his approval and to emulate his successes in sports. And he yearns after a different refuge, an escape from the ceaseless demands of work, householding and deprivation.

Robert Pellette, Jr., Richard Romeo (photo: City Theatre)
This father-son relationship is as tense and dangerous as a live wire. The casting here is superb and the duo scenes are riveting. Pellette as Troy is a bulldozer, pitiless and demanding, suggesting to us the dogged determination that drove him up from poverty. Richard Romeo as Cory is wound up tight, conflicted between the desperate desire for approval and angry resentment at Troy's destruction of his chances to win a sports scholarship. They incarnate the mutual incomprehension of generations. "Why don't you like me?" bursts out of Cory, to be met with elaborate incomprehension from Troy: "Like you? Like you?  I don't got to like you, boy. Who do you think put that roof over your head? Who give you something to eat?"

MacArther Moore, Gina Houston (photo: City Theatre)
As Rose Maxson, Gina Houston (right) is patient and tolerant with all of her menfolk, and particularly of Troy's boyish flirtations with her. She is a provider and protector. She is a teller of truths, unafraid of her husband and ready to challenge him on his treatment of his sons or his loony brother Gabriel. In the second half of the piece, Houston twice rises to poetic intensity -- first, when in a bitter dialogue when Troy confesses to infidelities and to fathering a child, and in the final scene in a lengthy monologue delivered to son Cory. Her presence and eloquence win over a son thrown out of the house six years before.

Troy Maxson loses everything. He throws out Cory. Rose accepts the consequences of his infidelity but seals him out of her daily life. Even his friend Jim Bono uneasily finds excuses when urged to visit. Maxson is left in his own delirious face off with death.

McArthur Moore as Gabriel or "Uncle Gabe" (above, with Gina Houston) plays that simple, lost soul with the unpredictability and intensity of the great Shakespearian fools. His pension and war compensation paid for the Maxson house. For years Troy refuses to have Gabriel committed to a psychiatric hospital, even though the man is intermittently haunted by hell hounds and chases the children who mock him in the streets. Moore is hugely funny at times, eliciting bursts of appreciative laughter from the audience, and at other times he is distracted or haunted or spasmodic. His greatest pleasure is to present Rose with a rose.

Gabriel carries a battered old trumpet about with him and cheerily tells Rose about his conversations with Saint Peter. And at the end -- after

Robert Pellette, Jr. (photo: City Theatre)

Rosa has pronounced her own judgement of Troy to the hesitant Cory -- the last words are Moore's, after his trumpet has broken down and he rises to his own incomprehensible incantations for Troy Maxson.

In closing, a flower to T'Siyah Travis, the solemn young girl who plays Raynell, Troy's last begotten child. Her touching little scene with Richard Romeo as Cory is a bright medallion at the tragic finale, reminding us that family -- especially children and siblings -- carry forward our blood in the warmth of shared remembering.

Video interview of Robert Pellette and Richard Romeo, KTBC Fox-7 (3 minutes)

Austin Live Theatre background article with comments by cast members, published February 26 

Review by Hannah Kenah in Austin Chronicle, March 12


Ryan E. Johnson's rave review on, March 14: "Early favorite for best drama in Austin theater this year playing through March 22" . . . "City Theatre Company’s Fences is pitch perfect drama with almost all the elements down pat, from the set design, the acting, to the fight choreography, that doesn’t seem to have a single piece out of place. If you’re a theater fan, or even if you aren’t, this is one show you have to make it out to see."



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by August Wilson
City Theatre Company

February 26 - March 22, 2009
City Theatre
3823 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78722