America always struggles to reckon with its racist history. There’s a resistance to bringing up the past. As if history has no bearing on where we are today. As if those who suffered under slavery, or the Trail of Tears, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, were some other people in some other place. But looking back is the only way to find understanding and empathy. That’s what Portland Playhouse has done with its production of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning 1985 play Fences.
Fences is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays exploring the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. Set in the 1950s, it follows the life of Troy Maxson (Lester Purry), a middle-aged sanitation worker who once dreamed of playing major league baseball. Denied his dream because of the color line, he has consigned himself to a simple life with his wife and son.
Wilson’s script takes its time, allowing the audience time to fall under the spell of his protagonist. As the patriarch of the Maxson household Troy looms large in the family, always the center of attention. He’s a natural storyteller, drawing in his friends and family with embellished tales about his own life, and eager to give out advice on everything. But just below his charming exterior is a storm of anger and resentment, a terrifying force the family must navigate.
While the show is ostensibly a character study, Wilson uses Troy as a vessel to examine the generation of men who grew up after slavery but before the civil rights movement. The way trauma and disenfranchisement is passed from one generation to the next. Troy survived, thrived even, despite the hand he was dealt in life, but it’s left him bitter and hardened.
With such a deeply flawed and complex character at the center of the show, it would be easy for a production to lose the audience. But Purry gives a magnetic performance. His Troy has a charming swagger and an infectious laugh that’s impossible not to like when he’s in a good mood. And when he stalks the stage with his baseball bat, arms filled with tension ready to explode, it’s hard to look away.
In the rare moments where Troy’s posturing is stripped away, Purry show us the pain his character carries. And while the production never absolves him of his actions, the audience always empathizes with him.
While Purry carries the show with his outstanding performance, the rest of the cast hold their own, especially Erika LaVonn as Troy’s wife, Rose. She radiates the hidden strength and grace of a woman who must bear the burden of her own life as well as her husband’s. Never flinching in the face of the tempest of her husband. And when the script gives Rose her moment, she proves as formidable as Purry.
Director Lou Bellamy had a long friendship with Wilson, who died in 2005, and the work put into this production is obvious. It feels polished for sure. But more than that, Bellamy takes a show set on a single set piece with a simple story and makes it hard to look away, captivating us with nuance about the life of a single man who lived years ago. Because he understand the importance of history. The way each decade shapes the next. The way each generation shapes the next. All leading us to the moment we exist in now.
Watching these characters, it’s hard not to connect our world to theirs. And their world to the world before. We find ourselves in a similar moment to theirs – having seen incredible progress, but also seeing there’s so much more to go. Portland Playhouse makes its production of a show set in the 1950s feel necessary for 2018.
Fences continues at Portland Playhouse though June 10 at Portland Playhouse. Ticket and schedule information here.