Stage 3 aims high, scores hit with ‘Fences’

Patricia Harrelson /

Stage 3 Theatre always aims to hit the ball out of the park.

"Fences," the 2013 season opener, doesn't quite hit that mark, but it is better than a base hit.

The sheer moxie of producing August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the African-American experience earns the production a win.

With characteristic enthusiasm, director Don Bilotti, who is also Stage's artistic director, seized Wilson's script, packed with dramatic tension of epic proportion.

He recruited a notable cast of black actors from local slim pickings and went to work.

When Bilotti postponed the scheduled opening of "Fences" by a week, he revealed his respect for Wilson's work (He wants to get it right!) and confidence in the cast's ability to hone the performance, given time.

One challenge resides in the langorous, expository - albeit poetic - monologues, especially in the first act.

The play centers around Troy Moxson, a 53-year-old black man living in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s. Haunted by racial inequities and a life-time of grievous experience, much of the Moxson's back story is offered through self-mythologizing reminiscence -hence the monologues.

Sean-Pierre Fox-Wilson, a newcomer to Stage 3, has the responsibility of delivering Troy Moxson's reams of lines.

Two characters serve as prime witnesses and occasional truth-checkers to Troy's lopsided dialogics about soaring home runs in the Negro baseball league, his painful childhood, and his post-workday forays to the local bar.

Dennis Brown plays Bono, Troy's loyal best friend. Michelle Allison plays Troy's patient and affectionate wife, Rose.

Brown, easy and composed as ever, serves as a gentle conscience to Troy, periodically admonishing his friend about flirtations with a woman at the bar.

Rose is a kindly critic, and Allison is adept at portraying wary, sidelong looks and intonations of bemused exasperation while Troy spins yarns about facing death and the devil.

The two surround Troy, a Pittsburgh sanitation worker, with clean forebearance - Allison the epitome of quiet, receptive honesty; Brown a jovial, forthright companion.

Sustaining alert, observant stances while Fox-Wilson soliloquizes is something Brown and Allison do extremely well.

Unfortunately the sheer volume of words that the playwright imposes on Troy's complex, burdened role causes Fox-Wilson to stutter and lag as he plumbs the depths for appropriate passion and expression.

To their credit, Brown and Allison match pace with Fox-Wilson's mindful delivery, but this prevents the snap an audience expects from whip-smart language.

And yet the audience is gripped by Troy's plight - the1950s facts of his circumstance - and like Rose and Bono, they want to believe in both him and Fox-Wilson! For this is a character with a personal history, spouting language of Shakespearean heft.

But it is hard to maintain sympathy for this bent soul, especially watching the father-son discord, and its all too familiar jangle.

When Troy's eldest son, Lyons, played by Larry France, comes seeking a handout, France gives the hipster just the right amount of swagger and impudence to foster a little empathy for the father. But later, France imbues Lyons with integrity and a passion of his own that Troy besmirches and belittles.

Much worse is his treatment of the younger son Cory. Antwon Mason's Cory is the optimistic light that should shine some hope on the moment. Mason is full of the requisite delight that might transform the father, but he is equally able to portray indignation and barely contained rage when Troy squashes his dream.

Rick Batiste plays Troy's brother, Gabriel, a wounded war veteran. Batiste, previously seen in Stage 3's "Hamlet" and "Superior Donuts," once again beautifully navigates an off-beat role, this time one requiring all the nuances of brain-injury: poor impulse control, illogical reasoning, and hyper-sensitivity. In Batiste's competent hands, Gabriel is readily seen as the wise fool.

Ron Cotnam built a fine set to serve as backdrop for thwarted desires - a two-story brick home with posts of a yet to be completed fence. Costuming, however, is off, especially for the male characters. The dew rag and Army uniform, in particular, did not seem to fit the 1950s setting.

"Fences" is a production in which expectations are thwarted. For one thing, Wilson has created a character who does not transform for the better over the course of two acts. While everyone around Troy Maxson is growing and changing, he plummets to dark places and alienates affections.

At the same time, Bilotti and his cast are reaching deep for the necessary vigor and electricty. Their delivery needs greater speed and ease to hit it over the fence.

But theatergoers can count on one thing: Stage 3 always reaches deep. Actors and audience alike are forced to think in this play. And that's a beautiful thing in live theater.

Another reward in this production is child actor Jordyn Danielle Allison, who pops up in Act 2 as Raynell. Her appearance is as sweet as catching an outfield fly.

"Fences" plays through March 17 at 208 S. Green St. in downtown Sonora. Call 536-1778 for reservations.

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The Union Democrat
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