Friday, February 5, 2010

Now Showing At SCR: Fences

This past Saturday, I went to see Fences, a multi-award winning play (including a Pulitzer Prize) now showing at South Coast Repertory. As many plays as I’ve been to in the past, I’ve never been in a theater audience where the vibe and personality of the viewers felt more like a Tuesday-night Lost party. At least two or three times during the play, a twist or turn would occur within the plot, wrenching your emotional attachment to the characters, making you question your allegiance to them, making you doubt whether they were in fact hero or villain. During these moments, immediate gasps and sighs, surprised “oohs,” and even whispered discussions would break out throughout the crowd, most of whom were seasoned theater-goers whose etiquette would otherwise never allow for whispering during a production. We couldn’t help it, though. We were shocked.
Troy (Charlie Robinson) in August Wilson’s Fences, at South Coast Repertory January 22-February 21, 2010.  Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR.

The play revolves around the Maxson family, and more perfectly, around the effect the patriarch of the family, Troy Maxson, has upon his family. Troy is a self-proclaimed hero of heroes who unknowingly reveals himself as more of a helpless victim than a champion as the play goes on. He’s a resentful victim of his life’s circumstances, a man who has become fenced in from happiness by the conviction that he was never paid what he was owed in any right: not from his father, not from his former baseball career, not from his employer, and not from his family. He’s been cheated. Troy sees himself as some sort of misjudged and disrespected hero, and so storms around the small sphere of his life, his home’s yard where the whole play takes place, dictating and enforcing his own emotions upon everyone around him. His humor is magnetic and his rage is titanic.
(l. to r.) Troy (Charlie Robinson), Rose (Juanita Jennings), Bono (Gregg Daniel) and Lyons (Brandon J. Dirden) in August Wilson’s Fences, at South Coast Repertory January 22-February 21, 2010.  Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR.
The play felt so unlike most theatrical productions I’ve seen. In most plays, you expect that theater quality: the actors speaking with perfect enunciation and voice projection, reading lines that sound nothing like conversations that take place in life. You expect and enjoy the hyper-stylized version of life. But in this play, I was so taken by the main character’s realism. It was in the way he talked, moved and laughed. This brilliance of humanity is due both to August Wilson, the playwright who wrote Fences, and Charlie Robinson, the actor portraying Troy Maxson. James Earl Jones, the original cast member portraying Troy Maxson in Fences, said of August Wilson, “Few writers can capture dialect as dialogue in a manner as interesting and accurate as August’s.”
Rose (Juanita Jennings) and Troy (Charlie Robinson) in August Wilson’s Fences, at South Coast Repertory January 22-February 21, 2010.  Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR.

In hindsight, what is most interesting to me is how much I related to the play as I would to a Hitchcock film. It had that same conflicting appeal to it. You both love and hate the hero (if you can call him that) and his effect on those around him. He is a quasi-hero who swaps between his own version of good and evil throughout the whole story. Like so many of Hitchcock’s later heroes, there’s an “unexamined selfishness” that characterizes Troy. The themes in Fences are all common themes found in Hitchcock films, too: harsh father figures, the acknowledgement that our own personal judgments on morals and what “feels right” (a phrase Troy uses when justifying himself during the play) are completely subjective, and “the dramatic appeal of the insecure,” as film critic Maurice Yacowar put. Yacowar called Hitchcock a poetic realist “engaged with the moral and perceptual nature of man,” and that is what August Wilson, a poetic realist himself, masterfully explores in Fences.
Like Hitchcock films, August’s tumultuous ride in Fences doesn’t end with a moral, but with the small and uncertain sort of closure that comes through a death.  “There is…no Langian handshake by which conflict of interest is resolved in the promise of a liberal compromise,” wrote Ronnie Schieb of Hitchcock’s conclusion within Shadow of a Doubt. Similarly, in Fences, you don’t find an epic happy ending wherein both sides meet in a negotiated understanding. Nevertheless, you leave the characters with a small sense of relief and even a small sense of hope that they’ve drawn their own small conclusions from the series of events; and strangely, you leave feeling contented and moved despite everything that’s happened to conflict with and challenge your own morals. That’s because it’s not a play that reaches for a lesson on life; it’s a portrait of a life through a beautifully poetic lens.

Fences is playing at SCR through Feb 21st. Get tickets here!

On my iPod: "My Heroes Have Always Been Crazy" by The A-Sides

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