Bristol Riverside Theatre stages August Wilson’s ’50s drama.

By: Stuart Duncan

Jill Marie Lawrence (left), Keith Randolph Smith (center) and Scott Whitehurst in ‘Fences’ at Bristol Riverside Theatre.

   When playwright August Wilson (born Frederick August Kittel, the son of a German baker and an African-American cleaning woman) was in school, he was accused of plagiarism by the principal who believed he couldn’t possibly have written papers as perceptive and mature as he submitted. In response, August dropped out of school and haunted libraries, reading everything he could get his hands on.
   His first play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, won minor awards in 1986 and was nominated both for a Tony and the Pulitzer. His next, Fences, won both. Three years later, he won another Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson. Moreover, he determined to write a play for each decade of the 20th century. Fences, set in Pittsburgh in 1957, represents the ’50s.
   The current production at Bristol Riverside Theatre is straightforward and in-your-face, and thereby loses some of its inherent subtleties — but it is never boring. Playwright Wilson tells the story of Troy Maxson (played with roaring intensity by Keith Randolph Smith), a man who pines for a lost career in baseball. He had played in the Negro League in the ’30s, but Jackie Robinson had not yet arrived on Branch Rickey’s doorstep and the nod to Civil Rights had not yet been recognized. Since Wilson filled his dramas with symbols, one can assume that Troy’s last name is derived from Mason-Dixon.
   Troy has a loving and caring but much ill-used wife, Rose (Jill Marie Lawrence in a sensitive portrayal that captures attention merely by not yelling like everyone else). His son, Cory (James DeLeon), has tremendous athletic ability but is not allowed by his father to use it. Part of the action of the play is that father and son are building a fence around the yard. For Troy the world is "full of fences," not realizing that some of them are of his own making. Nor that fences may keep people out, but also can be used to keep people in.
   But director Keith Glover describes Fences as "a dangerous play," at least in part because it strays from safe theatrical conventions. And never more so than the very beginning when the stage is silhouetted in various blazing colors and at the end when Gabriel, one of Troy’s friends recently released from the local loony bin, tries to ask St. Peter to open the Gates of Heaven to the deceased Troy. There is a hint that playwright Wilson was suggesting the oncoming Civil Rights era of the 1960s. There is much anger in this staging — perhaps too much. Wilson is a playwright whose arguments are so logical and perceptive, loudness is not always an asset.
Fences continues at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, Pa., through April 3. Performances: Wed., Sat. 2, 8 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. Tickets cost $29-$37, $10 students. For information, call (215) 785-0100 On the Web: www.brstage.org