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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

August 25, 2022 Issue
PART 2 (August 26, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


PLT's Fences Is Entertaining, Meaningful, and Touching

"Good fences make good neighbors."
-- Robert Frost* --

Any production of any August Wilson play would be well worth watching. Likewise, any play produced by Pure Life Theatre is also well worth watching. So, PLT's current run of Fences really had no choice -- it was destined to be this good.

Furthermore, having premiered in 1985 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Fences went on to win the 1987 Tony Award® for Best Play and the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. So, buckle your seat belt!

Set in the 1950s in Pittsburgh, Fences is the sixth play in Wilson's series of 10 (known as "The Pittsburgh Cycle" and "The American Century Cycle"), and it gives a few slices of the life of Troy Maxson and of the lives of those closest to him. We meet his wife Rose, his best friend Jim Bono, his brain-damaged brother Gabriel, his two sons Lyons and Cory, and his daughter Raynell. The play deals with such subjects as race relations, cultural bias, and family dynamics in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

First impressions are important. Our first impression (a positive one) was a "tech impression." Scenic designer Deb Royals has delivered an intricately detailed set, an accurate representation of the back porch of a small house in the "colored section" of town.

Our first "character impression" (also positive) was of Thomasi McDonald (as Troy) and Ajani Kambòn (as Bono). As these two enter, we catch their relaxed, playful conversation in medias res, and it is a whirlwind.

It's Friday afternoon, and two good friends are going to hang out together and have a few drinks and a few laughs. This pair shares a very breezy comfortableness -- the characters are tuned in to each other, and the actors share a chemistry that would be admired by any spectator and on any stage.

Equally impressive: Connie Leach's Rose fits right in with this duo, giving us a glimpse of "her side" of the story and supplying the third part of a trio that is truly a force of nature.

Troy's relationship with each of his two sons is strained. As the older son (Lyons), Benaiah Barnes handles the friction in the manner expected from the artistic soul of a musician.

As Lyons' younger brother Cory, Jay Randall responds in the more rebellious and ambitious fashion of a high school athlete.

If there is a weakness in the script, it is to be found in the plot involving Troy's brother Gabriel. He was injured during World War II, catching a piece of shrapnel in the head, and thereby becoming mentally unstable. Because of the writing, Gabriel's early appearances border on being cartoonish. However, Vincent Drayton (to his credit) is able to inject the necessary degree of poise and dignity into Gabriel's final appearance, thereby imbuing the character with a respectable, relatable measure of humanity.

Side Note: How significant is it that a character named Gabriel carries a trumpet and babbles about heaven?

As Raynell, Mia Burton is not just cute, not just precious; hers is a character with distinct connections to the other characters.

The phrase that I would pick to describe the performance that director Jamal Farrar has coaxed from this cast is: "incredibly realistic, with enthusiastic high energy."

There is a plot thread concerning building a fence for the Maxson's backyard. Pay attention to when the fence actually gets built (and by whom).

Also: pay attention to what Bono has to say about why we build fences. And never forget that fences are metaphors; what do they represent? And how can we improve life by recognizing that they can and do get built?

Sound, light, costume, and props values are all solid and well-designed.

I have seen performances of several of Wilson's plays, including two past productions of Fences, and I must say that this one was by far the most entertaining, the most meaningful, and the most touching.

From the Department of Picky-Picky:

As remarkable as the set is, there are a couple of flaws:

  1. The downstage corner of the stage-left brick wall has a gaping seam through which back-lighting streams, thereby hampering the illusion that it is anything other than a pair of hinged flats. Could this somehow be masked?
  2. The screen door to the house occasionally provides a "window" to the "world backstage." Perhaps, a black flat or a curtain could prevent this.

The younger characters could stand to "up their volume." Rather much stage time involves sawing boards. Does it need to be so painfully obvious that no board ever actually gets cut?

*To be fair, we need to keep in mind that the proverb "Good fences make good neighbors" comes out of the mouth of the speaker in Robert Frost's 1914 poem "Mending Wall," and that this speaker is quoting what his neighbor says (twice) as they mend the wall between their properties. In other words: we have no way of knowing Frost's actual stance on the issue of fences.

August Wilson's FENCES (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25-28), directed by Jamal Farrar and featuring Thomasi McDonald as Troy Maxson, Connie Leach as Rose Maxson, Ajani Kambòn as Jim Bono, Jay Randall as Cory Maxson, Benaiah Barnes as Lyons, Vincent Drayton as Gabriel Maxson, and Mia Burton as Raynell Maxson (Pure Life Theatre in Leggett Theatre in Main Building at William Peace University in Raleigh). VIDEOS: 2021-22 SEASON: THE PRESENTER:,,, and THE VENUE: DIRECTIONS: COVID REQUIREMENTS: THE PLAY:,,,, and THE SCRIPT (excerpts): THE PLAYWRIGHT:,,,,, and TICKETS: $22 ($20 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel; $50 Dinner Theatre Night on Friday; and $15 per person for groups 10+), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-839-9505 or PLEASE DONATE TO: Pure Life Theatre.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights' Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review.


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