Thursday, October 01, 2009

Fences at the Huntington Overcomes August Wilson's Second Act Problems

You really can't go wrong if you check out Fences during its last two weeks. I don't have much time, but I thought I would post a few thoughts on the production and on August Wilson.

I only just caught the play last night, and maybe it was for the best. Reviews, such as Thom Garvey's, and word of mouth from friends indicated that the lead actor, John Beasley, was very unsteady during the opening few performances.

Though I saw a few tell-tale signs of these earlier criticisms in Mr. Beasley's performance, I can happily report that his Troy Maxson is a rich and complex portrayal. Beasley comfortably inhabits the softening bulk of a hard man who has been tornadoed through the technological, political, societal and familial upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century. As he stands looking out on the approaching second half, he is, (to steal a phrase from the Hub Review,) a mass of contradictions.

Troy preaches the value of knowing and working within your limitations in society, yet he stands up to the establishment to become the first black sanitation driver in the city. He endlessly sings the praises of his wife, while he almost openly philanders. He is, as are many of Wilson's characters, endlessy fascinating.

August Wilson's immense talents helped him concentrate and focus the implacable social winds that buffeted African-Americans into the even more complex interpersonal relationships of their own families and communities. And, further, in his great arias, he would attempt to chart the challenging inner landscapes of his protagonists. By working on these three levels of conflict and antagonism, Wilson was able set up a charged poetic universe into which he could launch myriad ideas and dynamically cycle them through laments, dirges, jokes and sermons.

However, Wilson's interest, (or maybe even infatuation,) with these ideas often created enormously successful first acts that seemed to lose dramatic force in the second. Early on, ghostly spectres of future confrontations are raised, but when the key moments arrive later, the playwright's seeming obsession with elaborate dialogue gets the better of the situation. For instance, the compressed air of the moment when Troy Maxson reveals an embarassing secret to his wife leaks out quickly as we listen to speeches from both parties. Also, in dealing with the increasingly threatening confrontations between son and father, Wilson dutifully tacks on a bit of physical struggle to the end of overlong verbal duels, but it seems as if he doesn't realize that the urgency has long seeped away. Sometimes these shortcomings are blamed on the actors or the direction. Sometimes this is unfair.

The same goes for his overly long codas that he attaches to some of his dramas. Fences is no exception to this. I wish I could report that the audience and I sat rapt with attention in the closing monologues, but, as I have found on other encounters with Wilson's work, indiglo fireflies start to infest the theater and the slight rustling of coats ran through the seats like a wave. And this is an audience that rose to its feet to applaud the performers. (And it wasn't one of those obligatory standing ovations, this was a deserved appreciation.)

Even in exceptionally good productions, such as Fences at the Huntington, the lasting impression of Wilson's work can sometimes be of a play that finishes in the lead, but just makes it over the line before it expires under its own weight.

Wilson was thinker, and this, combined with his enviable talents with language, makes him succeed where a lesser dramatist would most likely fail. The universes he created combined uniquely with the colorful voices of his characters, and this allowed him to keep believably generating new conflicts and ideas well into the proceedings, bouying things enough to compensate for his disinterest in honing traditional dramatic elements and structure.

I am open to the idea that Wilson's aesthetic intentions resulted in a deliberate diffusion of potent conflict and climax. (Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night would be an example of this.) However, the more I see and read his work, the more I find evidence that he wantedthe dramatic power of these moments, but couldn't discipline himself to shape them adequately.

But maybe these are just quibbles with the satisfying theatrical experience Wilson's work delivers.

Fences is at the Huntington Theatre Company through October 11th.

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