Prizewinning play is an instant classic


The former baseball great Troy Maxson, who is aging, angry and now afoul of his devoted wife, drops wearily into a battered chair, cradling the infant he’s fathered by another woman. “A man’s gotta do what’s right,” he says, to nobody in particular. And that is August Wilson’s drama, “Fences,” in a nutshell. Troy is full of lofty pronouncements about life’s meaning, and they are hard-won. He’s been through the wars and emerged heroic from some of them. But where it matters most, he too seldom does what’s right. The play, a Portland Center Stage co-production with theaters in Hartford, Conn., and Dallas, Texas, where it already has been seen, is the best known of Wilson’s 10-piece series documenting the African-American experience in the 20th century. A Tony and Pulitzer winner, it is a vivid, heartfelt piece of theater, as big and engaging — and in ways as exasperating — as the man at its center. And it is a classic, deserving of a place in the American canon alongside Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” At Center Stage, it takes the audience into a robust bearhug from the get-go. Scott Bradley’s breathtaking set — a patch of dirt outside the worn, working-class home where Troy lives with his wife and son — very nearly upstages everything in the production, and R. Lap-Chi Chu lights it so deftly that, from one scene to the next, it’s possible to guess the time of day to the hour. Here, the blustery Troy holds court, sharing his gin on Fridays with longtime buddy Bono and ordering his family about with dictatorial relish. He makes a show of affection for his peppery but dutiful wife, Rose, but has little but disdain for teenage son Cory and an older son, Lyons, a struggling jazz musician who pops up occasionally, mostly to borrow money. This well-tested routine works well enough until Troy’s refusal to let Cory consider a football scholarship and a later confession that he’s been cheating on Rose effectively end his days as a husband and father. His self-image crumbling, the man behind all the talk of responsibility and self-reliance has nowhere to turn. Veteran actor Wendell Wright is very fine as Troy but has almost too easy a time portraying a man who is charismatic but ultimately one-dimensional, and Wandachristine is delightful as the sturdy Rose. But the playwright never truly gives Cory (Robert Christopher Riley) a chance against his father, and Lyons (Che Ayende) is practically superfluous. Most frustratingly, Troy never attempts to redeem himself. It’s tempting to say he is a man whose principles and passions are forever at odds, but in truth it’s not much of a battle. He is a selfish, shortsighted man. He’s been determined enough to star on the diamond and courageous enough to take on his oppressors at work, but he will not — or cannot — put his family first. But that is clearly Wilson’s point, and he makes it in a way that feels satisfyingly universal. Fatherhood might be easier for everyone involved if it were not in the hands of men moving past their prime, some of them quite reluctantly. — Eric Bartels 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, through May 6, Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-445-3700,, $16.50-$59.50