Like most of the plays, it's set in an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Its protagonist, Troy Maxson, illiterate son of a Mississippi sharecropper and star of the Negro baseball leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, was denied fame in the major leagues not by his ability but by his race. He faces middle age as a bitter but proud garbage collector. He boldly challenges his employer's policy of letting only white men drive the trucks while blacks do the dirty work of dumping the garbage in the back. But he refuses to let his teenage son play football, though not only is the young man good, he's likely to score a college scholarship. Troy is convinced that the white man will never let the boy get anywhere in football. He should spend his time learning a trade.
Hawthorne Players impressed me when they announced they were producing Fences. The play is a little outside their usual range, both in its cast and in some of the audience that might want to see it. The Players obviously want to extend their range, and I'm delighted to see they are successfully doing so.
But I was a little surprised when they announced that Archie Coleman would be playing Troy. Troy can be downright mean in some of his scenes with his son, and Archie Coleman, in my experience, is one of the sweetest guys you'll ever meet. But Coleman is also one of the finest actors you'll ever meet, and he gets all sides of Troy – the bitter, the mean, the proud, the regretful, the loving.
A strong cast surrounds Coleman. Kimberly Kidd, who has done mostly musical theatre before but whom I hope to see frequently in any kind of theatre, plays Troy's long-suffering wife. She gets some of the weakest lines in the play – and a few can creep into Wilson's powerful writing – but she uses them in a thorough exploration of her character. As the son, Gabriel Phifer matches Coleman in their explosive scenes. Ethan H. Jones, an increasingly familiar figure on several St. Louis stages, plays a calming influence as Troy's co-worker and friend. Steven Maurice, an accomplished musician, plays Troy's grown son from an earlier marriage. The character is also a musician, and director Nancy Crouse smartly uses him to play and sing brief guitar interludes during scene breaks – one of the many smart things Crouse does in this splendid production. As Troy's brother, brain-damaged in the Korean War, Darren Wilson, with director Crouse, has choreographed an effective solution to the nearly impossible task Wilson sets the actor when the character finally lifts his battered trumpet to his lips to blow open the Pearly Gates so Troy can enter. Two young girls alternate in the role of the child Troy had from an affair; I saw Alanna Fenner, cute and self-possessed.
Ken Clark has created an impressive two-story set for Troy's house. Director Crouse designed the costumes, Sean Robertson the lights, and Tony and Andy Bertolino the sound.
Hawthorne Players' Fences rewards in every way.