I almost missed Portland Playhouse’s presentation of Fences because I came into my new position as the Mercury’s arts editor during the middle of the production’s run. But I still wanted to see it, because everything I’ve seen at Portland Playhouse has been good, and because I remembered previous arts editor Alison Hallett calling Fences “one of the finest American plays ever written.” Now I’m glad I did, because the success of the show caused Portland Playhouse to extend its run through July 1. You now have two more weekends to see this dynamic exploration of a Black 1950s Pittsburgh family. If the show I attended on a Thursday with a packed audience is any indication, you should get tickets sooner rather than later.
Fences is a play about sons and fathers, and the different parenting styles people have at different stages of their life. But Portland Playhouse newcomer Erika Lavonn—playing wife and mother Rose—threatens to steal the spotlight. She quietly creates a whole life for Rose in the background while her husband Troy (Lester Purry) jokes and boasts up front. When the time comes for Rose to unload her repressed anger, Lavonn brings a power that shook me with its fury. Another bright star is Bobby Bermea—playing Troy’s brother Gabriel—who, like Troy, served in the military but, unlike Troy, returned with a metal plate in his head. Bermea plays the role of a man living with diminished capacity with authenticity and verve.
Purry too deserves praise, though there are moments where his vivid monologues feel rushed. It would be fair to say the whole first act unfolds a little too quickly, perhaps attempting to constrain Fences to the promised run-time of three hours. That's not an unusual length for an August Wilson play, but it is something to be prepared for.