It was a Sunday evening, and we were shuffled into an intimate little setting at the Out Front Theatre Company, nestled to the northwest of Atlanta. This indie outlet hosts a playhouse no bigger than the cheap seats at the AMC, which serves only to enhance the intimacy of venue. The lights dim as the image of Troy Maxson - Illiterate garbageman, former Negro league star, checkered husband and father - leaps into view. He’s standing alone, bat in hand, swinging at Death as his whole world slips away due to his own flaws and personal misdealings. It is one of the most iconic images of the modern stage, closing out the visible history of its demon-haunted hero. August Wilson’s tragic creation helped launch his name, and made Fences the most well-known and studied play of his ambitious Pittsburgh Cycle. It has been subject of analysis from scholars and critics alike since its 1985 debut, and luminaries such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington all stepped up to the honor of playing its flawed patriarch - the latter bringing Wilson’s masterpiece to the big screen in 2016. But for the inspiring minds behind Atlanta’s Independent Artists’ Playhouse, the intimate environment of the indie theater scene is well-suited to draw out the power and tragedy of Wilson’s work. The talented cast, despite some minor flaws, brought Troy, Rose, and the rest of the characters to life, bestowing a force and agency distinct from the admittedly stellar performances of Jones, Washington, and Viola Davis. The small setting, in fact, only enhanced the play's claustrophobic feel, earning another tip of the hat to the producers and their stylistic choices.
Wilson’s play centers on the fall of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector living in a small house in Pittsburgh, with his nurturing wife Rose and their son Cory. The central story unfolds over a series of episodic vignettes featuring Troy as he interacts with the rest of the cast: his strained relationship with Lyon, a son from a previous tryst; the damage wrought upon his marriage due to his infidelity; his unresolved shame and doubts centered on his brother Gabriel, who sustained brain damage following his war tour; and, perhaps most central of all, the disintegration of his relationship with Cory, as he first sabotages the boy's chance to play college football, and finally drives him away completely as his son loses all respect for him and they clash in the climax. Though Troy’s cut from the same mold as tragic heroes of old, the eternal question both within and without the story is how much of Troy’s downfall can be blamed on the racist society around him, and how much lies his own faults and foibles. Wilson himself seemed ambivalent on the question, and a common thread running through all iterations of the play is how far they tilt to one side or the other.
The minds behind Independent Artists’ Playhouse offer their own interpretation, thanks to the commanding performance of Marcus Hopkins-Turner as Troy Maxson. Marcus is a tall man, physically imposing but lean and lanky. He plays this up in his nuanced depiction of the Maxson patriarch; he’s not James Earl Jones’s stern authoritarian, nor is he a prickly imp like Denzel Washington, but rather, convincingly blends both portrayals into one whole. The strength of Hopkins-Turner’s character lies in his ability to catch the audience unawares; his lean, grandfatherly form and penchant for good-natured ribbing suddenly morphing into a towering, bellicose figure who at moments seems capable of any act of violence. And yet, the actor also bring a sense of weariness to the figure; his Maxson seems, above all else, a man fundamentally fed up with his life and what he has been through.
His cast mates all live up to their roles, though results may vary. The two most important characters in the play after Troy are Rose and Cory. Britny Horton was a lovely Rose Maxson - jovial and good-natured, and trying desperately to be a supportive wife to the cranky Troy, though her squealing pitch at times got the better of me. A key, easily forgotten fact about Fences is that the titular structure belongs to Rose just as surely as it does to Troy; while Troy guards against all the outside forces conspiring to do him in, Rose wants to protect all she holds dear, and Horton’s graceful and breezily feminine interpretation - challenging to Troy, but largely devoid of any self-aware snark or biting remarks - makes us feel for her struggles as strongly as Troy’s. Jael Pettigrew holds up well as an adequate Cory, though the play’s direction leans heavily towards Troy and Rose, and Cory, despite being the play’s designated antagonist (if of a heroic sort) gets completely overshadowed by the other two.
One performance I distinctly did not enjoy was Jared Brodie as Lyons Maxson. Though obviously a talented and expressive young actor, he plays Troy’s elder son as an overly emotional whiner, liable to storm off in a huff if he can’t get his father’s ear. Though that is, I suppose, a legitimate angle on a character whose own spotty actions often only inferred, seeing him play a strong counter to his father - hardened and a bit bitter for his absence in his life, even as he tries to steer down a different path - would have been preferable. Besides Brodie, some of the stage direction did not work according to the atmosphere of the play. Troy and Rose spent too much time looking off in different directions during their most heated exchanges. This makes sense in some cases, as in the infamous “baseball dialogue,” during which Troy talks past his long-suffering wife with sports metaphors while they argue over his infidelity. But at other times it didn’t fit, and looked as if Troy was having a soliloquy off on his own while Rose lectured him.
By and large, though, these is small trifles before a strong and tightly directed play, and the fitting resolution at the end gave no question onto which side of the fence they stood regarding how much blame Troy should shoulder for his misfortunes. It was a concise and fitting end to a well-done interpretation of Wilson’s seminal work, and though this showing of Fences has, tragically, run its course, if you are in the Atlanta area and in the mood for an evening rendezvous with the stage, you’d do well to swing by and give the IAP a look at any of their venues. It would be time well spent.