In the second half of Fences, Bono (Bryant Bentley), uses his friend's home improvement project to give some sage advice. "Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in," he says.
When Portland Playhouse's production begins, the titular fence in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is just a few wooden posts in the front yard of Troy (Lester Purry) and Rose (Erika LaVonn) Maxson's front yard. But as the play progresses, the fence becomes a complicated symbol of limitations, security and home that Wilson uses to relay the everyday experiences of a working-class, African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh. As the boards get cut to size and pounded into place, we see what building it with his son, Cory (La'Tevin Alexander), means to Troy, and how it represents the confines he himself couldn't break out of but that Cory might. When Rose notices that Troy abandons his tools for a few hours every Saturday, the half-constructed perimeter symbolizes her desire to protect her son.
For the seventh play in Wilson's 10-play cycle that Portland Playhouse has staged, the theater brought in an outside director, Lou Bellamy. Bellamy's intimate relationship with Fences began in St. Paul, Minn., where he played Troy Maxson under the direction of Wilson himself. In that same production, Purry played the role of Cory.
This time around, Purry stars as Troy, the Zeus of his Hill District front porch. With big stories and a bigger laugh, he exudes charisma, whether he's reminiscing with his best friend and fellow garbage collector Bono, or wrapping his arms around Rose after she halfheartedly swats him with her kerchief.
As Cory, who's the star of his high school football team, Alexander bounces around the front porch in cuffed jeans and Converses with adolescent excitement one moment, then is utterly crestfallen the next when Troy stiffly reminds him to call him "sir." Troy, whose baseball bat leans against the front steps as a token of the fame he felt he deserved, wants Cory to focus on getting a job and trade skills instead of playing football and going to college.
The Maxsons' front porch and yard lead into a fully constructed kitchen, so we hear an audible slam from inside the house when Rose ends an argument with Troy over signing a recruiter's form. Later, we can see her freeze mid-motion through the screen windows to listen to Troy's voice get louder and more aggressive as he talks to Cory in the yard.
As the bottle of gin in Troy's hand gets lighter, you can feel the tension tighten onstage. Purry performs a dark take on Troy's alcohol-induced monologues, quieting his tone to a growl when his authority is questioned, and locking onto Cory's gaze like a lion on a mouse.
But the stark change between exuberant, fun Troy and angry, threatened Troy is indicated only by that tone shift and a straightening of the shoulders. When we first see him swing his bat for more than narrative emphasis, it's impossible not to flinch as the pile of boards is sent clattering to the ground. During the famous "Who says I gotta like you?" speech Troy gives Cory, Purry is unapologetically serious as he lays out his definition of paternal duty.
The same unforgiving tone is taken when Troy has to face the fruits of vices at Rose's expense. But even that scene does not romanticize the fresh start for Troy's conflicted household. In real life, complicated fathers don't have "aha" moments. They seek affirmation in the wrong places, feel vulnerable at the possibility of their children achieving what they couldn't, and are blind to or too proud to acknowledge the damage caused by their coping mechanisms.
In the program, Bellamy notes that he considers this piece Wilson's "most accessible work." Yet Troy's character, the magnetic yet flawed father figure, is far beyond an introduction to Wilson's oeuvre. Portland Playhouse's phenomenal production of Fences is a potent reminder that beneath it all, we're all just trying to figure out where to cross lines and where to draw them, hoping to keep the good stuff close and the bad stuff out.
SEE IT: Fences is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 and 7 pm Sunday, through June 10. $25-$34.