Troy Maxson, who probably thought he'd live exactly 1 million years, checks out at around 60 in Fences, one of playwright August Wilson's takes on the 20th-century black experience in the United States. Wilson tends to kill off or hobble a lot of his people, some of whom we regrettably never get the chance to bid farewell. Maxson isn't one of 'em, to be sure—this guy's a jut-jawed juggernaut with a telltale gin-swiller's belly, a self-absorbed son of a bitch whose burgeoning shit-list includes no less than the devil himself.
“Death,” he snarls in the first act, “ain't nuthin' but a fass'ball on the outside corner o' the plate.”
That little pearl marks the former Negro Leagues standout's stinging regret over never having cracked the majors. It's also the kind of metaphor actor Antonio “T.J.” Johnson was born to draw—such is his outstanding performance in this latest production from Cygnet Theatre. Seamlessly and almost defiantly, he turns his character's emotions on a dime; each nuance brings a fresh and equally curious look at the open sore that is Maxson's failing, embittered heart. It's absolutely remarkable work, draped in Wilson's symphonic language and flanked by a very strong supporting cast. If this piece is at all about black America, it's also a look at the country's universal longing for itself, with Johnson's terrific portrayal at its roily center.
In the summer of 1957, Maxson and his son Cory (Patrick Kelly) would busy themselves with construction of a wooden fence around the family's ramshackle Pittsburgh home. At 53, Maxson is certainly young enough to adapt in his work (he eventually gets a promotion at his garbage-collection company), but he's also old enough to assess his failures as a father and as a man—he's seething with anger over what might have been on the field, and his resentment over a million other perceived slings and arrows yields the fence, his inviolate line in the sand.
“Some folks build fences to keep people out,” notes Maxson's wise old friend and co-worker Jim Bono (a good Grandison M. Phelps III); “others build fences to keep people in.” For Maxson, the barrier does both.That means it also seals in assorted family matters, which spill over into Maxson's undoing. To reveal the particulars would spoil things—besides, Johnson has to be seen to be believed. Get a load of that magnificent voice; a patriarchal bellow morphs into a kitten's plaintive plea at a moment's notice, as long as the intonations suit Maxson's purpose. Magically, the physical characteristics follow, with Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson responding splendidly as Maxson's careworn wife Rose. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg coaxes a breathtaking climactic scene from the both of 'em—she follows through just as effectively on either side of that confrontation, making this piece her crowning achievement in at least the last five seasons.
Wilson ill-advisedly chose the day of Maxson's burial for his final scene. There's a maudlin quality to that concept, because the setting cops to Maxson's lifelong demands for the respect he never afforded anybody else, except the long-suffering Rose. As well, Mike Buckley's otherwise good set design needs to focus a lot more on the fence itself, the play's metaphorical centerpiece. But this piece survives all that, emerging as a seriously powerful lesson on human frailty, personal responsibility and racial irrelevance. Very, very good. This review is based on the matinée performance of Jan. 27. Fences runs through March 2 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., College Area. $27-$31. 619-337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com.