Friday, April 09, 2010

Play: The Measure of a Man

Fences by August Wilson, Directed by Timothy Bond, through April 18, Seattle Repertory Theatre.

This is a good one. For various reasons, I have gone through a majority of the plays of August Wilson, and this is the one that seems to be tagged most often as one of his better works, one of the must-sees. And it is, though not for the reasons I see in a lot of the reviews.

Troy Maxson is a garbageman in Pittsburgh's Hill District. In his youth he was a ballplayer, and served time for murder as well, yet in this part of his lifeis the master of his territory, his kingdom set out on stage by his backyard, back stoop, and the fence that he is regularly building. The play runs through a series of Fridays in his life as he boasts, bosses, and bullies those around him.

Most of the summaries make much of the conflict between Maxson and his second son, Cory, who has the potential to go to college with a football scholarship. The idea that the son might show up the big-fish-in-a-tiny-kingdom father and the father betraying that ideal is part of what's going on here, but it is only part.

Fences is a character study, with Maxson, played incredibly well by James A Williams, at its heart. He dominates the stage like he dominates his little world. Every other character interacts with him, and on those occasions when they do not, they interact ABOUT him. He is the center of this solar system, and we see him win, we see him lose, we see him tell lies, and we see him reveal truths. But is all about him. Everybody else, from his sons (Stephen Tyrone Williams as Cory the younger athletic child, Jose A. Rufino as the elder child who grew up when Maxson was in jail), his wife (Kim Staunton, who plays the part with enough love for him and enough strength to stand up to him), his brother (Craig Alan Edwards, addled from war), and his best friend (a brilliant William Hall Jr. who can turn a phrase with a smile and a wink), all orbit him, and when he casts them into the outer darkness, they take long paths to come back.

And despite its two hours and plus length, it is a compact play, and the actors attack it with aplomb and dispatch. It takes a moment to catch up with them, at the beginning, like riding the old Whip ride at the amusement part. Yet they are not hurrying the play, just helping because there is so much ground to cover. Having waded through the overstuffed bulk of King Hedly II you can see where its sins come from, because here, he does everything right, and all the pieces fall into place, and he has a center that holds it all together.

The setting is Pittsburgh, home the bulk of Wilson's plays, and he name checks the localities - Greentree, the A&P, the Brady Street bridge. Maxson talks down about the modern ball players as not being up to his abilities in the Negro Leagues, and badmouths Clemente in passing, which is pretty much as close as you can get to spitting on the Pope in the Steel City. No, Maxson is not a good man by any stretch, but by the end of the play you get an idea where he comes from.

This is Wilson firing on all cylinders, and the cast takes the opportunity and runs with it. This is one of his plays that justifies the others, and lays down that August Wilson definitely belonged in the big leagues. Make the time and go see it.

More later,