Saturday, August 23, 2008

l-r: James Williams, Elayn J. Taylor, James Alfred.
Photo by Ann Marsden, courtesy Penumbra Theatre.

Penumbra's "Fences"
The Definitive Production

From the Strib:

'Fences' is intimate, powerful

THEATER REVIEW: Director Lou Bellamy and his gifted cast have delivered a riveting production of August Wilson's masterwork about a bitter former baseball player.

By ROHAN PRESTON, Star Tribune

James A. Williams, who plays Troy, gives the performance of his life. From his thunderous laughter and the taut veins in his neck to the flash of anger in his eyes, Williams delivers a chiseled and engrossing performance as the brokenhearted center of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 masterwork.

There is not one false note in Lou Bellamy's funny, robust and riveting staging of this drama. He hits it way out of the park.

The play has a distinguished production history. James Earl Jones won a Tony Award for playing Troy on Broadway. But he has some serious competition at Penumbra, not least because the house is so intimate that you feel the energy of the actors as they whoosh by you on the way to the stage or as they coo or curse.

This show is so nuanced and palpable that it feels like you have been thrust into a dream. There are many elements of the design, including Don Darnutzer's ghost lights and C. Lance Brockman's set, that underscore the immediacy of the work.
From the Pioneer Planet:

Theater review: Penumbra knocks one out of the park with 'Fences'

By Dominic P. Papatola

Article Last Updated: 08/22/2008

Great hitters will tell you that, when they're in the groove, time seems to slow down. They can see the ball as it's released from the pitcher's hand, note its precise rotation, anticipate its dips and bends, maybe even count the seams. Putting the bat to that hurled sphere — a difficult task complicated by external physics and internal pressures — seems, in that moment, to be a doable, even routine job.

You have to believe that James A. Williams felt that way at Thursday's opening night of "Fences" at Penumbra Theatre Company.

Playing former Negro League great Troy Maxon in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about responsibility, opportunity and inter-generational conflict, Williams is a commanding, powerful presence. Even by the standards of Penumbra — one of the nation's top interpreters of Wilson's work — this performance is one for the ages.

It's a role of Shakespearean scope and heft, and Williams finds every ounce. Powerfully built, with a bit of a paunch, he
has the precise look of a once-prime ballplayer gone to seed.

When Troy is backslapping with his old friend Bono (Marion McClinton, admirably knocking the rust off after many years away from the stage), Williams is hale and loose and loud and boisterous; an old dog who still has plenty of bite.

When he's dealing with his brother (James Craven, heart-rendingly childlike as a veteran gone slug-nutty after a head injury in World War II), Williams bends Troy toward tolerance and as close to compassion as the character's bearing allows.

And when he's jousting with his son (James T. Alfred, nicely nuanced and vulnerable as the talented athlete whose chance for a college scholarship rankles his father with reminders of his own unmet dreams), Williams can be perfectly terrifying, standing nose-to-nose with a stare that could boil lead.

The only character that comes close to matching Troy, in fact, is his wife, Rose, Elayn J. Taylor seems to be cruising comfortably through the role, but when she delivers a second-act monologue reacting to Troy's infidelity ("I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no 18 years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom"), she cracks the character open, spilling out years of longing and love and regret with a gut-punch speech that leaves you breathless.

Director Lou Bellamy, who has played Troy himself a couple of times, has a crystalline vision of this script and this production, riding its comic highs and tragic lows with a poetic ease. C. Lance Brockman's front-yard set — realistic down to the scrap lumber tossed under the porch and the weeds growing through the cracks — pushes the action of the play up toward the audience.

It also serves as a reminder why Penumbra's tiny Selby-Dale stage — and not the wide, deep, distanced space of the Guthrie's proscenium house, where Penumbra staged "Gem of the Ocean" earlier this year — is the place to see an August Wilson play. "Fences" is a thundering play, and you want to be close enough to feel the ground shake.
Amen, Dom.

My wife and I attended the Thursday performance and it was all you say and more. There is no better place to see Wilson's plays than Penumbra. The actors are uniformly outstanding.

I also saw this year's production of "Gem" at the Guthrie. Given the, shall we say, long time that it took the Guthrie to recognize Wilson's genius, this was sweet to see. Penumbra can fill large spaces as well as small. If you live in the Twin Cities and you don't see a Wilson play done by Penumbra, you are making a big mistake.
(Tickets, anyone?)

I grew up in Pittsburgh - in the fifties. The play's radio broadcast of the Pirates and the mention of Clemente brought back good memories, and bad, of long ago...

And if you go not knowing what to expect, you are in for a hell of a surprise:

By Jean Gabler, TC Daily Planet
August 22, 2008

I asked my friend Barbara to help me review Fences, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama by August Wilson. The newspaper ad grabbed my attention: it shows just a baseball and one line. “The heartbreaking story of a man and his last chance at bat.” I was anticipating a feel-good story about a young man realizing his dream of being able to play baseball professionally. As you can tell, I tend to wear rose-colored glasses.

I don’t think either one of us knew anything about August Wilson and his series of plays, the Twentieth Century Cycle, being showcased at the Penumbra Theatre. These works explore the heritage and experience of African-Americans, decade-by-decade, through the century. I certainly did not see the type of story I anticipated, but I don’t think either one of us was disappointed

I would not call this a baseball story; however, it is filled with baseball metaphors. During a pivotal scene, Troy tells his wife Rose, “I have been standing on first base for 18 years, and I just wanted to steal second.” This is a story of the struggles of an African-American family in 1957, but many of the family’s struggles and relationships are timeless and cross all boundaries. I was not ready for the intensity of the emotions in this play—emotions magnified by the intimate feel of the Penumbra Theatre.

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