Fences: No Home Run, but a Solid Double off the Wall
The story of Fences may be set in the 1950s, but the story that propels Fences is one that is timeless and resonates to this day.
First off, let’s start with what Fences isn’t. It is not a play about baseball. The Grand Theatre has done a masterful job with its artwork over the past two seasons, providing compelling imagery to sell its plays. Fences suffers from a misalignment. Yes, Nigel Shawn Williams’ Troy is a former Negro League player. But that fact serves only to provide a small amount of motivation. And there are a few analogies and metaphors that persist throughout the play that feel more forced to fit and idea than natural extensions of the dialogue.
What it is, however, is a quality examination of poverty, racism, classism, and family dynamics – and the frustrations borne from challenges of pride, hope, honour, and happiness that stem from such crushing circumstances.
The play centres around Troy, who earns a meagre living as a garbage collector. He espouses the ideals of hard work, responsibility, dedication, and providing for one’s family. These are ideals that he subsequently chooses not to follow – and his demand for personal accountability and ownership of one’s actions are strongly contrasted by his subsequent reliance on circumstance to explain his caving to selfish motivations.
Troy rules with an iron fist and an unwavering sense of what should be. This is contrasted by Christopher Bautista’s Lyons, his eldest son who refuses to submit to the drudgery of a day-to-day job, instead chasing his dreams of being a musician – and borrowing money from his father and living off his wife’s earnings in the meantime. Ngabo Nabea’s Cory is cut from the same mold, athletically, as his father Troy, but is in polar opposition to him emotionally and attitudinally. Cory is being recruited by colleges for his football prowess, which Troy refuses to indulge due to his belief that his baseball career was stymied by racism.
Eventually we find out that Troy was likely the architect of his own destruction. And the ideals and history he espouses doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Even his desire to care for his brother Gabriel, injured in war and returned with significant mental damage, is called into question when finances come into play.
Williams is effective at presenting Troy as a wholly unsympathetic character. He vacillates between an open heart and that aforementioned iron fist throughout the production, and his treatment of his wife and children is despicable. In the first act, there were a few moments where he stumbled through some lines, but, while noticeable, it was not enough to derail the production.
The MVP of Fences is Ordena Stephens Thompson who stands out as Troy’s doting wife Rose. Her gentle-but-firm handling of her opinionated husband is masterful to watch and as she truly shines as she closes off her heart in the second act, after one ultimate betrayal.
E. B. Smith, as Troy’s long-standing friend and confidant, is expertly cast and a pleasure to watch. As he slowly transitions from good-buddy vibes to becoming more wary and delivering insightful warnings to his friend, he effectively conveys the emotional detachment from his friend.
The set is pleasingly minimalist and relies on clever projection to represent the dilapidated home and street where the family lives. As all the action takes place in the house’s small yard, there’s no need for movement or dramatic changes in set – and the play is all the better for it as we focus on the dialogue.
Stephens Thompson effectively wraps up the play with a dramatic speech that seems to provide an all-encompassing absolution of Troy’s faults. It feels unfair to the characters, but also allows for them to experience closure.
Fences is like late June baseball for a non-contending team. Ultimately it’s a pleasant two-hour and 40 minute diversion and you’ll walk away having enjoyed the experience. But it’s not an event that’s going to remain with you after you leave the field of play – and it doesn’t feel as important as it should be.