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Originally published Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 1:20 PM

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Theater review: Seattle Rep's staging of 'Fences' hits it out of the park

August Wilson's "Fences" is in very good hands at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Seattle Times theater critic

Additional performances


By August Wilson, through April 18, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $15-$59 (206-443-2222 or


Performance review |

It starts with a pair of workmates joshing and jiving and drinking a few snorts on payday. Then, in the right hands, the pressures and stresses in August Wilson's "Fences" build, build and build, to a series of stunning climaxes, explosive and tender.

"Fences" (a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize honoree and a jewel in Wilson's 10-play cycle of 20th-century black life) is in very good hands at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The director, Tim Bond (ex- head of Seattle's Group Theatre) gives this fierce, layered exploration of 1950s black manhood its full due.

He's entrusted the jumbo-sized role of Troy Maxson, a conflicted Pittsburgh garbageman doing battle with his son, his society, his angels and devils, to a substantial actor, James A. Williams (seen earlier at the Rep in Wilson's final work, "Radio Golf").

Williams is well-met by Kim Staunton, as Troy's warm, earthy, wronged wife, Rose; Stephen Tyrone Williams (no relation) as Troy's younger son, Cory, whose youthful dreams are dashed by his stern father; William Hall Jr., perfection as Troy's jovial pal Bono; and cute Shiann Rush as Troy's youngest. (Jose A. Rufino and Craig Alan Edwards also excel in the smaller roles of Troy's olderson Lyons, and his disabled brother, Gabriel.)

This mounting of "Fences" (a coproduction with Syracuse Stage) taps into the extraordinary power of lyric humanism fueling Wilson's vision of the Great American Family Drama.

A scrubby, bleak little brick row house in Pittsburgh's Hill District (impeccably designed by William Bloodgood and lit by Geoff Korf) is Troy's hard-won kingdom. As he won't let Cory forget, he's overcome poverty, racism, prison and his own volatile father to acquire it.

But the journey has hardened and coarsened him. Barred by race from the major leagues as a gifted young athlete, he bitterly disses breakthrough black players like Jackie Robinson and thwarts Cory's ambitions. And he can't keep his demons (including death) at bay by fencing in his yard.

Though his unapologetic credo of "A man's gotta do what's right for him" gradually estranges those he's sacrificed for, Troy (based largely on Wilson's stepfather) is etched with compassion.

The price of his domestic achievement has been years of self-denial and physical labor. It's bred a toxic resentment, and a hunger for relief, that nearly destroys him.

A stocky, robust man with a commanding voice, Williams potently conveys Troy's strengths and self-delusions. And he raises the question of what good fathering is — love and nurturing, or toughening you up for the battle of survival?

Wilson's dialogue is a flavorful amalgam of "trash talk" and other common speech, and a metaphorically rich blank verse that elevates his basic plots and iconic characters to near-biblical stature.

In a pre-Broadway, San Francisco staging of "Fences," with the great James Earl Jones, that patois seemed verbally windy and grandiose to me and other San Francisco critics in 1987 — because it was so new, and because the script was still being pruned.

But there's no doubt in my mind now, watching the Rep's beautiful production, that this is one of Wilson's finest efforts. As long as families struggle with and chafe against the limitations of human nature and the American dream, "Fences" will stun and sing.

Misha Berson:

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