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Theater Review: Tony Todd hits it out of the park in ‘Fences’ at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Tony Todd hits it out of the park in “Fences,” through Aug. 7, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, DeSales University.

The entire cast is superb in “Fences.” It’s a team effort.

Not unlike a coach, Ryan Quinn directs August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play with a seasoned attention to detail. It’s the little things in “Fences,” seen opening night July 29 for this review, that score big.

At the center of the tense drama is Tony Todd in a magnificent portrayal as Troy Maxson, whose dream deferred become the stuff of nightmares for family and friends who face his often-uncontrollable anger.

In the backyard of the family’s Pittsburgh Hill District home, Troy (Todd) spins and twirls a Louisville Slugger like a toy baseball bat before practice swings at a ball tethered from a tree, symbolic of the distance he can’t place between himself and his career in Negro league baseball (before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947) and his job as a city garbage collector.

After a day’s work, Troy (Todd) jokes about his job and complains about the working conditions, bantering with co-worker and friend Jim Bono (Shane Taylor, in a charming, garrulous performance) as they share swigs from a flask. Their repartee sets up a plot point that unfolds seemingly innocent enough and explodes during a confrontation between Troy and his wife Rose (a superb Ella Joyce in a nuanced performance).

Rose wilts like a flower at hearing Troy’s devastating confession. The scene is played with sensitivity and grace by Joyce. And Todd successfully negotiates a fine line and crosses it when Troy is particularly unapologetic and asserts his dignity.

That dignity is defended in an odd denial (as deftly written in Wilson’s script) when Troy asserts his parental rights as the father of Cory (Tyler Fauntleroy in a wonderfully understated performance) of his son’s goal to play high school football.

Providing comedic relief amidst the family drama and trauma is Lyons (Brandon Edward Burton in an amusing performance), Troy’s son, who pops in and out at the sound of Troy’s wallet opening.

Gabriel (Brian D. Coats in a remarkable performance), Troy’s brother and a person with differences because of a World War II wound, plays the theatrical role of the fool, and thus in the tradition proves perhaps the wisest of all during the play’s climatic final scene, giving solace for some and hope to all.

Raynell (Ilan Annum in a lovely performance) arrives late in the storyline, bringing optimism to the family and life to its future.

“Old Dog Blue” (based on the 1928 version recorded by blues singer Jim Jackson), sung unaccompanied by Raynell (Annum) and Cory (Fauntleroy), becomes a tribute to Troy’s resiliency.

The production, under Quinn’s direction is casual and leisurely, as if the theater-goer is eavesdropping, yes, just on the other side of the fence. You may know the phrase coined by Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall” (1914) that “good fences make good neighbors.” August Wilson seems to be saying that there are no fences, nor should there be, between family.

Scenic Designer Baron E. Pugh creates a realistic brick front two-story facade (cleverly translucent) with a front porch, flanked by two huge trees, with a clothes line and, of course, those fences.

Costume Designer Kendra L. Johnson outfits the cast in attire appropriate to the occupations of Troy and Jim, and also to reflect the time and place of the story.

Quinn, working with Lighting Designer Aja M. Jackson, provides scene respites from the intense dialogue and emotion, and, collaborating with Sound Designer Larry D. Fowler, Jr., evocative transitions with snippets of memorable recordings, including Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday” (released as a single in 1956 and on an album in 1957; the play is set in 1957), and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (written by Cooke; released in 1964, and a Civil Rights Movement anthem).

The “Change” is symbolized by Gabriel (Coats) blowing that horn, or attempting to blow the horn, which builds to a crescendo that releases a flood of emotions that no fence can hold back.

August Wilson’s “Fences” is a difficult play about a difficult man about a difficult time about difficult subject matter. The subject is America.

“Fences,” 7:30 p.m. Aug. 3 - 5; 2, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 6; 2 p.m. Aug. 7. Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, Tickets: www.pashakespeare.org; 610-282-9455

This theater review is dedicated to Mary Alice Smith (Dec. 3, 1936 - July 27, 2022) whose stage name was Mary Alice, and who received a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as Rose in the 1987 Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Fences.”

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Tony Todd (Troy Maxson), left, and Ella Joyce (Rose Maxson, Troy's wife), “Fences,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Ella Joyce (Rose Maxson), “Fences,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Shane Taylor (Jim Bono, Troy Maxson's friend), “Fences,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Ilan Annum (Raynell, Troy Maxson's daughter), left; Tyler Fauntleroy (Cory, Troy and Rose Maxson's son), “Fences,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZ Brian D. Coats (Gabriel, Troy Maxson's brother), “Fences,” Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.