The back porch is humble, verging on tumbledown, and even a weed would be hard pressed to grow in the stony yard that surrounds it. If there's any foliage on the single tree, left over from another age, it's too high for us to see.
We are in a lower-class black neighborhood in the 1950s in a sooty industrial city not unlike Pittsburgh. But set designer Loy Arcenas is not content to leave it at that. He has had an extraordinary inspiration -- one that not only suggests the brute impact of August Wilson's "Fences," but also symbolizes the play perfectly.
Revived by Arena Stage in the Kreeger Theatre for a run through June 24, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama unfolds in a kind of moral twilight zone. There has been only minimal chipping away at the practice of segregation, and the civil rights movement is still years down the pike. For Wilson's characters -- a hulking garbage collector named Troy Maxson and his family -- the main order of business is getting from one $76.42 paycheck to the next.
There are few escape hatches from this existence, and that's how the remarkable set figures into matters. Behind the Maxsons' two-story brick house is a massive concrete retaining wall. It probably isn't a dam, although it could be. It could be a fortress. Against such might, the house can barely hold its own. In fact, it is not entirely clear where the concrete leaves off and the brick begins.
And that is the point, precisely. In "Fences," Wilson's characters are backed up flat against the wall. Opportunity lies elsewhere and the sheer drudgery of survival is taking its toll. With Troy, especially, Wilson has created a magnificent character, who is doing his best to honor his family obligations; all the while frustration and anger are corroding his soul. In the eight-year span covered by the play, Troy will vent his rage on his son, his brother and his wife, before taking up a baseball bat and swinging out at death itself -- a real, if invisible character in Wilson's plays.
The playwright's considerable achievement is to make this family struggle seem of epic proportions, without violating the homely, not to say drab, texture of their lives. There are moments in "Fences" that bring to mind the elemental power of Eugene O'Neill. And certainly some interesting parallels could also be drawn between Troy and Willy Loman, both victims of a bankrupt social system, both lugging about dreams of what could have been, both eulogized in the end by the wives on whom they have cheated.
Wilson is very much his own playwright, however. From the start, he has displayed a robust talent for writing dialogue that is both colloquial and richly poetic. Forging the larger dramatic structures, however, seems to have come less naturally to him. Compared with his most recent work, "The Piano Lesson," "Fences" is an episodic endeavor. The dramatic momentum generated in one scene (there are nine) doesn't necessarily carry over into the next and has to be built up anew.
Tazewell Thompson's direction, although alert to the possibilities of the moment, is less able to suggest the larger arc of time, so the problem that has always dogged the play goes unsolved here.
As a result, the character of Troy, played by Yaphet Kotto, tends to be the substance and the mortar of "Fences." He rules this drama as he rules his family -- with sound, fury and sheer physical weight. His legacy, however, is ambivalent. Every week he faithfully turns over his paycheck to his wife, Rose (Kim Hamilton), but he considers a mistress on the side a defensible need, if not a right. And he fully expects Rose to adopt the daughter he sires out of wedlock.
Largely on the basis of his long-ago experiences as a baseball player in the Negro league, he is convinced that a black man can get nowhere in white-dominated professional sports. So he prohibits his son Cory (Monti Sharp) from accepting the athletic scholarship that would put him through college. He's a bully and an autocrat and in one of the play's most potent scenes, he wrestles Cory to the ground before driving him off the property and into the Marines.
And yet Troy retains a gusto for talk, fueled by the ritual Friday night pint of gin. He has kept a roof over his brood and potatoes and lard on the table and expects no thanks for that. It is his responsibility. Trapped in a past that treated him unfairly, he just can't imagine a changing future. And he hurts so much inside that when he confesses, "I can't feel nothin'. Hallelujah! I can't feel nothin' no more," it is an admission of the only triumph left him.
On Broadway, James Earl Jones gave a gargantuan performance in the role and won a Tony Award for Best Actor. Kotto looms just as large, although the portrayal, which starts out lustily and ends majestically, tends to sputter in between. Hamilton is a mere twig in his arms as the good-humored, self-effacing wife. But when she confronts him with the consequences of his infidelity, she grows visibly, as if to accommodate the huge rush of pain. The transformation is riveting.
Sharp -- quick and confident on his own, leery around his titan of a father -- captures the fundamental contradictions of adolescence. And Wally Taylor adds an affable note as Troy's fellow worker and longtime drinking companion. It is Keith Johnson, though, who may well break your heart. As Troy's brother Gabriel, who lost part of his brain in World War II and now sports a steel plate in his skull, he wanders about the neighborhood, a hesitant smile on his face and a dented trumpet around his neck.
He considers it his duty, when he's not chasing down the hounds of hell that are everywhere present, to hold himself in readiness for the Judgment Day. Then, he explains, he'll raise the trumpet high and blow open the very portals of heaven.
Johnson finds a lovely innocence in this sweet imbecile and a strange grace in his scarecrow gait. His childlike presence injects a divine madness into the oppressive urban landscape of "Fences." The other characters, boxed in by concrete, can see only so far, but Gabriel's vision extends all the way to God's glorious gates.
Fences, by August Wilson. Directed by Tazewell Thompson. Set, Loy Arcenas; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Nancy Schertler. With Yaphet Kotto, Wally Taylor, Kim Hamilton, A. Bernard Cummings, Keith Johnson, Monti Sharp. At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre, through June 24.