Fences at Long Beach Playhouse’s Mainstage Theatre

Theatre review

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CULTURE-Review-Fences
From left: Brandon Rachal (Cory) and Damon Rutledge (Troy) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Fences

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

Having not seen Denzel Washington’s recent Oscar-nominated film Fences, I unexpectedly found myself on a rollercoaster ride of raw emotion at Long Beach Playhouse’s (LBPH) production of the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning August Wilson play. To say that this play is powerful is an understatement; it’s an ambitious dramatic undertaking about a man’s bitter conflict with his own devil– and the toll it takes on those who love him– that the LBPH actors are fully up to performing.
The story centers on Troy Maxson (Damon Rutledge), a 53-year-old African-American man working as a garbage collector in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, supporting his wife Rose (Teri Gamble) and teenage son Cory (Brandon Rachal). We first see him with old friend and coworker Jim Bono (Rayshawn Chism), drinking straight from a gin bottle on a Friday night. Lyons (Jermaine Alexander), his grown son from a previous marriage, soon appears (asking for a loan), as does Troy’s childlike brother Gabe (Darnell Trujeque), a brain-injured war veteran.
What emerges through the rich vernacular of the dialogue is a portrait of Troy as a strong, resilient man literally haunted by the devil in various guises. Troy’s conflict perhaps stems from a domineering father from whom he ran away at an early age, only to end up in prison for stealing. He is further denied the chance to play professional baseball despite the skills he boasts of, whether due to age as his wife says, or racism as he alleges.
Now approaching retirement, Troy defends his accomplishments as the sole supporter of his family even as he stands by his questionable decisions both past and present. We see the price paid for his pride by his son Cory, whose own sports ambitions Troy seems to thwart as he coerces the boy to get a job and be “responsible” like him.
Despite everything, we may admire Troy, even as we see him blindly bruise those around him, including the faithful Rose. We see that Troy echoes his authoritarian father, and in turn see his sons echoing him, especially musician Lyons whose ways become increasingly irresponsible.
Excellent acting (directed by Carl daSilva) makes this production transporting and visceral. Damon Rutledge is perfectly cast as Troy, embodying his tough determination as a fierce survivor. Teri Gamble as Rose is a good match as Troy’s devoted wife who stands up to him when it counts, as is Rayshawn Chism, who plays steadfast friend Bono very naturally. Brandon Rachal brings surprising sensitivity and wiry grace to the teenage Cory– we see him positively quiver with fear, anger and defiance. Darnell Trujesque is completely believable as Troy’s gentle brother Gabe, whose hallucinations of “hellhounds” and St. Peter in heaven provide counterpoint to Troy’s more ominous devil visions.
A raincloud of human emotion hangs over the Maxson family’s backyard setting, threatening to burst with hurt, betrayal, oppression, righteousness and delusion, but also humor, love and reconciliation. On preview night of Fences, the nearly packed audience was sometimes moved to verbally respond to such feelings elicited by the compelling characters. The chance to be so profoundly affected, even if you’ve seen the recent film, is all the more reason to experience this performance on stage.

Fences continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through June 17, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20 to $24. For tickets, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.

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