If it's January, it must be August Wilson. For years now, serious theatergoers have been able to rely on the Black Rep opening its season with one of Wilson's fertile dramas. Last month the Black Rep instead opened with Cryin' Shame by self-proclaimed Wilson protégé Javon Johnson. But the real thing is close at hand, with a highly creditable production of Wilson's seminal Fences playing just across the Big Muddy at the Alton Little Theater.
Although Fences, which opened in New York in 1987, was Wilson's second Broadway play (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom preceded it by three years), it was the overwhelming acclaim (Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award) for this saga of Troy Maxson, an aging Pittsburgh sanitation worker at odds with a changing world, that brought Wilson to national prominence. Eighteen years and six disturbing dramas later, it's hard to recall a time when he wasn't a presence in the American theater.
To revisit Fences is to realize how conventional Wilson was at the outset of his career. This script is beholden to the well-made plays of Arthur Miller and Lorraine Hansberry. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. There's something almost predictable about it: No sooner does one character exit the stage than the viewer can accurately anticipate who will enter next. But to suggest that the play's structure is almost quaint is not a criticism, because there's not a dull moment in the entire evening.
It probably sounds like a backhanded compliment to state that this Alton Little Theater production is surprisingly good. But the surprise has more to do with the play's selection than with its execution. More often than not, community theater is the comfortable domain of Neil Simon and Agatha Christie. True to that form, the Alton Little Theater opened its season last September with Harvey, a community-theater chestnut if ever there was one.
So despite last weekend's snow and sleet, it was immensely gratifying to see that the attractive Alton theater was almost sold out. The appreciative audience rocked with laughter; viewers were held rapt by the play from beginning to end. And well they should have been, because Troy is an infinitely fascinating character.
All his life Troy has been at odds with time. A natural-born baseball player, in his youth he hit seven home runs off Satchel Paige in the Negro League. But his talent began to ebb before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Now, in 1957, Troy is a frustrated garbage collector who doesn't want his two sons (from two wives) to fare better than he has fared. Troy drinks and frolics with reckless abandon. He fiercely lobbies to be elevated to garbage truck driver, even though he doesn't know how to drive. He can't read either, but he's streetwise enough to have learned that death is "a fastball on the outside corner." If nothing else, Troy still knows how to hit a fastball.
Jared Hennings, who plays Troy, has his own association with baseball. According to his bio, he was once Fredbird for the St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps that's why his Troy is more disarming than overpowering. He's less of James Earl Jones (who created the role) and more of Sherman Helmsley. Yet there's enough forcefulness in the lines and confusion in the portrayal that Hennings' performance ultimately works.
In fact, there's not a weak link in this entire cast of seven. Pamela Gaddy brings patience and clarity to Troy's long-suffering wife. Eric Robinson is a sad delight as Gabriel, Troy's halfwit brother. As Troy's fellow sanitation worker and lifetime friend, Duane Bailey brings such spontaneity to the role you'd almost think their scenes are improvised.
The only thing that's glaringly wrong with the production is a lighting design that insists on dimming the stage lights every time an actor begins a long speech. As executed here, these changes merely call self-conscious attention to director Barry Thornell's otherwise realistic direction. Someone also needs to apply a cattle prod to whoever's pulling the curtain. But who's quibbling? It's almost worth the drive to Illinois just to see a real stage curtain in a St. Louis-area theater.