August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences is part of his 10-play series exploring the changing situation of African Americans in the 20th century. Fences takes place in the years between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the script is steeped in the social and economic frustrations that would eventually erupt into the civil rights movement.
Fences is probably one of the finest American plays ever written, and it might be worth seeing on that basis alone. That said, Portland Center Stage's (PCS) production (presented in collaboration with Hartford Stage Company and Dallas Theater Center) is frustratingly uneven. There are moments that are so painful and compelling that you find yourself wanting but unable to look away from the stage; and others where overacting and overzealous directing run roughshod over the beauty of Wilson's language.
The central figure in the play is Troy (Wendell Wright), a garbage collector who struggles every day with the knowledge that his life will never be anything more than what it is. James Earl Jones played Troy in the original Broadway production of Fences, and Frank Rich said the following about the performance: "Mr. Jones' Troy embraces all the contradictions of being black and male and American in his time."
This observation pinpoints exactly what Wendell Wright's portrayal is lacking. Troy loves his wife, yet he cheats on his wife; he fights to become the highest-ranking black man at his job, but doesn't think his son should go to college. Troy is positioned at a dynamic nexus of personality and history, and the result is a heartbreaking mess of contradictions integrated into one man. This complexity just doesn't translate well in Wright's performance, which, though occasionally moving, never gels into a complete character. Many of the play's climactic scenes suffer as a result.
Despite my reservations about certain elements of the production, the fact remains that I've been thinking about the show since I saw it. It's an amazing script, and PCS achieves some honest, brutal moments. I felt slightly unhinged after the show—and since that's one of my main criteria for assessing good theater, they must've done something right.