Trinity Rep’s Knockout ‘Fences’

by | Mar 29, 2024

Above: Nicholas Byers (left) as Cory and Kelvin Roston Jr. as Troy Maxson in Fences at Trinity Rep. Photo by Mark Turek

The best drama is simple and complicated at the same time. August Wilson’s Fences is one such example, the story of a man who’s done wrong and works hard for redemption and to earn his place back in society. Troy Maxson’s stubborn, headstrong fight for respect and his due not only wears him out but breaks those around, forcing them to find their own way, just as he has. Trinity Repertory’s powerful production of Fences hits on these notes and many more.

The beauty of Fences is that it’s about a place in time, sure, 1950s’ Pittsburgh, Penn., and the common battle with racism especially implicit to that period, but it’s also about the bonds of marriage and the disproportionate weight women carry, and notably even further downstream from the man’s perceived injustices. It’s about our generational responsibilities and how tough love sometimes seems like a cover for selfishness, though it’s surely more nuanced than that. 

Fences is ostensibly the story of Maxson, a former Negro League baseball talent, who reached his prime before the major leagues opened their doors to African Americans, and squandered his youth incarcerated for murder during an ill-conceived robbery. Played by Kelvin Roston Jr., Maxson is a bundle of nervous energy, arrogant swagger and frustrated desires, with a palpable potential for violence and an unarticulated softness that sometimes struggles to break free. 

Maxson has two sons by different women, Lyons (Rodney Witherspoon II), by an earlier woman, and Cory (Nicholas Byers) by his wife of 18 years, Rose (Jackie Davis), who married him when he was still a star and had his pick of the litter. Gabriel (Martinez Napoleon) is Troy’s sweet, horn-carrying, St. Peter-obsessed brother, who suffered brain damage during WWII, and whose expropriated $5,000 government settlement afforded Troy – in his telling – his only chance to put a roof over his family’s head. 

That Gabe isn’t living with Troy anymore but at a boarding house as the play opens is a subtle insinuation as to how Troy’s sense of his responsibilities to others can fade over time, in concert with his lack of fulfillment, and an emptiness that for a variety of reasons he finds it hard to fill. Nor can he tell his youngest son he loves him, instead driving him away with unrealistic expectations until Cory spits the bit, and breaks Rose’s heart.

There are elements of Troy’s struggle that go back to the very first scene when he’s browbeating his best friend Bono (Dereks Thomas) and refusing Lyons’ pleas to spot him $10 that he promises to quickly repay. There’s a fundamental hardness that Troy’s cultivated in himself to get through. 

In a wonderful moment, Troy talks about that curveball on the inside corner of the plate and how you have to watch for that, but when it gets to two strikes, you just have to let it all hang out, recalling how he simply refused at one point to strike out anymore. The bravado, the vulnerability and the delusion, which on some level he required to keep going against whatever his obstacle. The people left behind.

The staging and set design are quite simple and reflect the relatively straightforward story being told, on little more than a Pittsburgh porch – because they didn’t have much more. Rose wants a fence, and there’s some discussion whether fences are designed to keep things from getting away, getting in, or maybe you’re better than anyone at hitting a horsehide ball over a fence and yet nobody will give you a chance. 

The performances are uniformly outstanding. Witherspoon’s Lyons charms in all his brief moments, while Thomas’ Bono is spot-on as the second banana friend slowly edging away during the course of the play. But the star of the show, perhaps surprisingly, is Davis’ Rose, who stands by her man only to find herself betrayed by his own need for validation, leaving her to rightly ask, what about me and my validation? “Don’t you think I have needs and desires,” she asks.

This silent power and willing subservience to the greater good embodies Rose throughout and it’s only through Troy’s selfish behavior that Rose’s steadfast heart, incredible sacrifice and sturdiness appear, like shadows on the wall, yet in the shape of the play cast her almost (perhaps even wholly) as the story’s true protagonist. 

Neither she nor Troy truly changes – the alleged requirement for a protagonist – but Troy refuses to change even when his desires interfere with others’ lives while Rose is the reliable lighthouse from which all the other vehicles measure their way, and in her unchanging devotion to her family comes to embody something eternal, something you can actually rely on. 

At the very least her role is as essential as his, ying to his yang, while throughout the play we are reminded of the tendrils of family and friendship that bind us, how fragile they truly are and how blinding our own hungry heart can be. (Maxson in a way suggests an African American Willy Loman.)

It starts a little slow, as the characters cut it up in the backyard, talking trash and Troy feeling his oats, but as the characters slowly reveal themselves, emotions rise and the pace quickens. Compared to the at times leisurely first act pace, the second act flashes by like a dream amidst rising stakes, building relatively quickly to the climax and the meditative ending.

Trinity acquits itself well all around. It’s a spare production but that black box approach just reflects attention back on the actors, who across the board are excellent, with the leads Roston and Davis standing out. Well worth your time.

Fences, at Trinity Rep, Wednesday through Sunday through April 28 at 7:30 p.m., with additional 2 p.m. matinees on most Saturdays and Sundays, and two of the Wednesdays. $24-$74. 201 Washington St., Providence; (401) 351-4242.

Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.

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