Saturday, February 02, 2008

Cygnet’s Fences: Solid Production of a Great Play


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo of Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and Antonio “T. J.” Johnson” copyright © 2008 by Rudy Rovang • Used by permission

Solid. That’s the first word that comes to mind when you enter the Cygnet Theatre at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, suite N and see Mike Buckley’s extraordinary set for their current production of August Wilson’s Fences. It’s the front porch of a shabby-looking but sturdy house, made to look just weatherbeaten enough to be believable as a house that has seen decades of living and not a theatre set. And solid is a word that keeps coming to mind throughout the production.

Wilson’s script, which he wrote in the early 1980’s and whose Broadway premiere in 1987 won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and four Tony Awards, is a solidly constructed piece of theatre with rich, complex characters who are identifiably African-American but also universal. The direction by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, one of the formidable quartet of women who founded and run MOXIE Theatre, is vital and incisive, and the cast members don’t act: they inhabit their roles.

Fences takes place in 1957, an awkward time in the history of Black America. The civil rights movement has begun and is getting national attention, but it has achieved only a few sporadic local victories. It’s 10 years after Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in major league baseball, and there’s been a trickling of Black athletes into the major sports but hardly the flood of the 1960’s and 1970’s: just enough that the play’s central character, a 50-something husband, father, ex-ballplayer and ex-con named Troy Maxson (Antonio “T. J.” Johnson), can dwell all too obsessively on what might have been if he’d been just a little luckier and younger.

Troy has reined in his own dreams and settled into life as a garbageman — though he’s just rebellious enough to protest that Blacks have to do all the hauling and lifting while whites get the easier assignment of driving the garbage trucks — and the central conflicts of the play involve him with his wife Rose (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) and “their” two children — Lyons (Laurence Michael Brown), his son by another woman; and Cory (Patrick Kelly), her son by another man. (Wilson’s script doesn’t specify who Cory’s biological father is, and both he and Rose refer to Troy as his “daddy,” but Duffy’s mixed-racial appearance gives the impression that the character’s father was white.)

Though racism looms as a sort of miasmic cloud hovering near the horizons of the action, no white people are depicted onstage and Fences is less a play about race than about family. At one point Rose protests that everyone in her family is a “half” — that no two of her relatives have the same two parents — but despite the blended nature of his clan, Troy has asserted himself as the strong-willed, domineering father over both sons. Indeed, most of Fences’ power comes from watching Troy try to dictate his sons’ lives while making a thorough mess of his own. Its tragedy is that he stands in the way of their dreams while all too aware that their dreams aren’t all that different from the ones he had at their ages.

Along with its central characters — husband, wife and sons — Fences also features Troy’s drinking buddy Bono (Grandison M. Phelps, III), with whom he can share not only booze but also memories of good times and his ongoing attraction to other women; and Troy’s uncle Gabriel (Mark Christopher Lawrence), who’s been in and out of mental hospitals and jails on “drunk and disorderly” charges and always carries with him a non-functional trumpet, under the delusion that, like his namesake, he will ultimately get a chance to blow the signal that will extinguish the human race.

Wilson provides rich, varied backgrounds for these people and draws you into their emotional lives. If you cry at the end of Fences, it’s not because a manipulative writer has jerked your tear ducts; it’s because a master has created characters you really care about, even — or especially — when they’re screwing up their lives. Turner Sonnenberg’s almost operatic direction, aided by the superb dialect voice coaching of her MOXIE colleague Jo Anne Glover, brings some of MOXIE’s moxie to Cygnet, especially in the way the dialogue seems perched at the edge of music and at times bursts into actual song. Wilson was the composer — his writing, rooted in realism, drifts suddenly and imperceptibly into a heightened emotional realm of poetry, the effect Tennessee Williams spent his whole career trying for and usually falling short — but Turner Sonnenberg and Glover are the ones who get their cast to sing.

Of course, Johnson as Troy has the deepest, richest arias. At times, his dogged insistence that as long as he is paying the bills he will decide how those under his roof shall live makes him seem as if Archie Bunker’s spirit has been dropped into a Black man’s body. In a role James Earl Jones created on Broadway, Johnson achieves the same dominance over the stage without doing an outright impersonation. Thompson, in the play’s only significant female role (which makes it “the road less traveled” for the MOXIE people, whose own theatre’s mission focuses on plays with women protagonists), is equally assertive, capturing the long-suffering, utterly loyal but also strong-willed and vulnerable wife to perfection.

Laurence Brown — who did a force-of-nature performance of his own in the title role of Sophocles’ Ajax at 6th @ Penn — is a bit overqualified for the part of Lyons, musician and hustler, but he makes up for it with an easygoing reading that focuses on his comfort with his body. Kelly’s Cory is a bit on the stiff side, though that’s a perfectly legitimate reading of a character whose response to his “daddy”’s constant bullying has been to cut himself off emotionally and become stiff. Phelps fulfills his character’s function, playing loosely in a role whose purpose is to humanize Troy and show us another side of him: an easy, fun-loving side unhampered by the responsibilities of family and job. Lawrence gives his “crazy” role a powerfully understated reading that builds to a stunning moment of pathos at the end. There’s also a quite talented child actress, Madeline “Maddy” Hornbuckle, who blessedly manages to avoid the cutesy-poo antics that have been the trap prepubescent girl performers have regularly fallen into since Shirley Temple.

As for the behind-the-scenes talent, Buckley’s admirable set design has already been mentioned. Cygnet regular Eric Lotze’s lighting is remarkably delicate, changing in ways that evoke the passage of time during the play. Costume designer Veronica Murphy supplies a wide range of clothes for the characters to wear, aided by a script that’s structured to give the actors time to change during the performance — this is one production in which we don’t have to believe that the characters spend several years of their lives wearing the same clothes. Bonnie L. Durben’s props avoid obvious anachronisms, though I wondered why in one scene Troy talked about having to go out to listen to a baseball game when the Maxson family’s radio was staring us right in the face.

Cygnet Theatre has occasionally been too adventurous for its own good in its choice of scripts, sometimes picking a weak play because it had a famous byline attached. But in producing Fences they’ve adopted a certified masterpiece, with a Pulitzer Prize to validate it, and they’ve given it a superb production that makes for unforgettable theatre.

Fences plays through Sunday, February 24 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blv’d., Suite N in the College/Rolando area. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. To order tickets, or for more information, call (619) 337-1525 or visit