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Fences at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

Director Mark Clayton Southers seems more interested in molding a complex central character than an empathetic one

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Kevin Brown and Sandra Dowe in Fences
  • Photo courtesy of Gail Manker
  • Kevin Brown and Sandra Dowe in Fences, at Pittsburgh Playwrights

There's something fatalistic about August Wilson's writing. So many of his plays — like all true stories — end in death, and some begin that way. Fences, now at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, is no exception. And the artists behind this production defer to the words, respecting the fatalism with a steady, inevitable pace.

The magic of August Wilson is that even when we can feel where the story is leading us, we want to stick around to delight in the details. But writing can only carry this weighty play so far, and Pittsburgh Playwrights has pieced together an acting showcase. Anthony Chisholm is the early standout as the brain-damaged Gabe — his cadence and varied register recalls a pitchy Ossie Davis. Sandra Dowe plays Rose Maxson, the matriarchal rock: reliable in her presence, though ever-shifting in her relationship with her husband, Troy.

And former baseball player Troy Maxson is the most challenging character. In the role, Kevin Brown does very little to sand the rougher sides of the man, and this production emphasizes the question: Is there enough here to empathize with? To his credit, director Mark Clayton Southers seems more interested in molding a complex central character than an empathetic one. Troy has had a difficult life — far more difficult than most. But do anecdotes about a violent childhood justify an adulthood of negligence and arrogance? What are these stories worth when recited by a dishonest man? Ultimately, Troy's insistence on doing "what his heart tells him is right" leaves him isolated. We're left wondering whether this isolation is tragic or cathartic (or both).

But if Wilson's writing is often fatalistic, his characters' fates are not predetermined. Instead, there's the reminder that familiar conditions will yield predictable results. Over the course of Fences, Troy gradually assembles a fence for his small yard. He's ostensibly creating it for the family that it ends up shutting out. Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri embraces the symbolism by creating fence-like trees, windows — nearly the whole set resembles a fence. Troy Maxson is villainous, but it's helpful to keep in mind that the conditions he lives in are real fences: the conditions that contribute to the trapped urban existences Wilson was so fascinated with.

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