Uneven ‘Fences’

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival presents August Wilson’s Fences

3 minute read
Scene from Fences. All 5 adult cast members sit or stand on the back porch of a 2-story brick home, flanked by 2 large trees
More lived in than plotted: the set and cast of ‘Fences’ at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. (Photo by Lee A. Butz.)

Originally slated for June 2020, August Wilson’s Fences makes its way to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival mainstage this summer. Two years after the production was first scheduled to run, August Wilson’s study of Black masculinity, generational trauma, and forgiveness feels more relevant than ever.

Set in 1957, Fences is the sixth installment in Wilson’s Century Cycle, 10 works spanning every decade of the 20th century. Written in 1985, Fences was a smash, cementing Wilson’s status as a major American playwright and earning him his first of two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award for Best Play.

Watching the work at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, it is easy to see why. The writing is both arrestingly poetic and beautifully quotidian. Wilson’s story of a Black family living through the shifting racial politics of the 1950s unfolds in surprising, organic ways. The play doesn’t feel so much plotted as lived in. The action takes place entirely in the backyard of the Maxson home, where garbage collector Troy lives with his second wife, Rose, and their 17-year-old son, Cory.

No small task

Troy is frustrated with the racism he experiences at work, which has prevented him from advancing from garbage collector to garbage truck driver, just as the baseball’s color barrier held him back from a successful career in sports. Embittered by his experiences, he thwarts Cory’s ambitions to play college football. In his program notes, director Ryan Quinn refers to Fences as “America’s King Lear.” Beyond capturing its historical setting, the play provides an excellent meditation on the connection between parents and their children, the ways in which we tell stories to hide our demons from ourselves, and ultimately the challenge of forgiveness.

It’s no small task to carry a show with such gigantic aims. In the role of Troy Maxson, film and television star Tony Todd hit some, if not all, of the notes. At six-foot-five, he is an appropriately intimidating presence and his early scene work with Troy’s best friend Bono (Shane Taylor) and eldest son Lyons (Brandon Edward Burton) sizzle with trash talk and dynamic storytelling. However, the pivotal scenes with Cory (Tyler Fauntleroy) and Rose (Ella Joyce) are more awkward than tense. Because Todd plays up Troy’s affable qualities, his angry, authoritarian outbursts seem to come out of nowhere. As written, the play is like a pressure cooker, slowly turning up the pressure until the play’s cathartic and beautiful ending. Here, though, the mood and tone rise and fall, letting the pressure in the world of the Maxsons dissipate, a loss of momentum exacerbated by overlong scene transitions.

The life ahead

Joyce plays Troy’s beleaguered wife Rose sympathetically but not forcefully. A family woman through and through, Rose finally stands up to her husband in the middle of the second act and describes all of the sacrifices she has made. This monologue is a pivotal moment in the play and Joyce’s weariness did not translate.

As a pair, Todd and Joyce don’t have much in the way of chemistry. This isn’t helped by the fact that both actors are about 15 years older than the characters as written. This is of course not necessarily a problem, but the pair are played and read more senior than middle age. Troy and Rose are vibrant characters with tremendous life experience. They also have the prospect of life ahead of them. The decisions they make in their backyard have ramifications that will have a lasting impact on their lives. Their relationship is charged and passionate, different than the partnership of two co-parents heading into their final years together.

What, When, Where

Fences. By August Wilson, directed by Ryan Quinn. Through August 7, 2022, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, Pennsylvania. (610) 282-WILL or pashakespeare.org.

Masks are required for the audience for all performances in the 2022 summer season through August 7, 2022. Proof of Covid-19 vaccination status is not required. Face masks are worn indoors before, during, and after the performance, regardless of vaccination status.


Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s campus is ADA-compliant, with accessible parking on site. ADA-compliant seating can be purchased online or by calling (610) 282-WILL.

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