Fences, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award winner for Best Play, is number six of a 10-part series, known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle,” by American playwright August Wilson. Each segment of the cycle examines the evolving social status of African-Americans in the 20th century by decade, Fences being set in the late ’50s/early ’60s. The Indiana Repertory Theatre is presenting its fifth production out of the 10 (Fences was also staged by the IRT in 1996), and it has the advantage of Lou Bellamy, founding artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn., directing this installment. Bellamy and Wilson were both friends and cohorts, giving Bellamy intimate insight into Wilson’s plays.
Fences tackles questions regarding the familial bond, responsibility, and forgiveness as well as the standing of African-Americans in this time period. Wilson’s plays include memorable laughs to balance out the serious work of social examination, but this one is also dark—betrayal, in many forms, is a key element here.
The stellar cast is headed by David Alan Anderson as Troy, the main character. Anderson seems to effortlessly oscillate between Troy’s moods; on the outside, Troy is jovial and full of life, but at his core, he is self-serving and bitter. Anderson portrays Troy as a raucous, physically expressive character, though Anderson often speaks so fast it’s hard to catch each line.
Kim Staunton as Troy’s wife, Rose, unwaveringly demonstrates Rose’s strength. While the audience may wonder why she continues to stand with Troy, we never doubt that she can. Edgar Shanchez, as Troy and Rose’s high-school-aged son Cory, captures the arrogance and vulnerability of that age. He is at his best as an antagonist; his later scenes as a Marine are a little too stiff (even for a Marine), but when he softens toward his half-sister, Elise Keliah Benson, it is a touching transformation.
Marcus Naylor as Troy’s friend Bono and James T. Alfred as Troy’s eldest son Lyons may be playing auxiliary characters that help propel story and character development, but neither plays his part as minor. Alfred especially gives Lyons the feel of a full personality. Similarly, Terry Bellamy embraces the part of Gabriel, Troy’s brother who suffered a head wound in the war that left him mentally damaged.
Scenic designer Vicki Smith envisioned a stunning backdrop for the action. Her representations of the claustrophobic feeling of the run-down row houses are a physical manifestation of the characters’ own feelings of being trapped.
While the play is long, just short of three hours, and examines painful subjects, the ending is satisfying, and the growth of the characters leaves the audience uplifted in the face of these characters’ grueling challenges.