Review: Florida Rep finally takes on August Wilson with powerful ‘Fences’

Review: Florida Rep finally takes on August Wilson with powerful ‘Fences’

It’s hard to believe, but Florida Rep has never staged a play by the great 20th-century playwright August Wilson. Not once in 21 years.

That is, until now. But the Fort Myers theater’s new production of “Fences” was well worth the wait.

Director Benny Sato Ambush and his cast pack Wilson’s great American classic with deep emotion, vivid performances and a powerful story about family and the harsh realities of black life in the early 20th century.

The rest of Florida Rep’s creative team steps up to the challenge, too — particularly set designer Richard Crowell. His “Fences” set looks like he plucked a battered old house straight out of a 1950s Pittsburgh neighborhood and dropped it onto Florida Rep’s stage, including sun-faded red brick, rickety chairs, alleyways, power poles and a threadbare back yard.

Crowell’s impressive set grounds the play in three-dimensional reality, giving Ambush and his cast the freedom to fly. And that’s exactly what they do.

Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play — part of his celebrated Century Cycle (or Pittsburgh Cycle) examining black life in 20th century America  — follows the story of Troy Maxson, a garbageman who was once a baseball star in the Negro Leagues but never made it into the Major League.

More:Your guide to the 2019 theater season in Southwest Florida

More:Meet Florida Rep’s new artistic director, Greg Longenhagen

Now, years later, Maxson is a bitter old man with sons of his own. He’s mean-spirited and jealous of their potential as he simultaneously dwells on his past and squares off with the haunting specter of Death. Most dads would want a better life for their sons. Instead, Troy wants to keep them down just like he was kept down by institutional racism (even going so far as to sabotage one son’s chances at playing on a football team).

Actor Mujahid Abdul-Rashid is a looming presence onstage as the iconic Troy Maxson (a name with two parts — “max” and “son” — that hint at the man’s lost potential). Troy isn’t even the tallest man onstage, but his sheer presence, demeanor, and deep voice make him feel larger than life, a legend that should’ve been but never was.

Abdul-Rashid’s Troy is complex and captivating, strutting and cocky and full of himself, yet still likable and entertaining as he regales people with tall tales and baseball metaphors. But underneath it all, there’s an undercurrent of anger, pain, and insecurity — and also some self-delusion about the reasons he never made it big (was it only racism, or was he simply not good enough to break the color barrier?).

Going toe-to-toe with Troy is his wife, Rose, who busily cooks and cleans inside the house while Troy and his friend Bono engage in “man talk” in the back yard. She and Troy have a fiery, lusty romance — even after 18 years of marriage — but she still sees through her partner’s bluster and knows exactly who he is (well, not exactly. She learns more about that later). It’s a crucial role in “Fences,” and Gayle Samuels plays the character just right with a clear-eyed confidence, passion and a powerful fury just waiting to get unleashed.

Florida Rep has assembled a terrific cast all around, though, including John Archie as Troy’s colorful, easygoing best friend Bono; Daniel Morgan Shelley as his happy, music-loving older son Lyons; Marc Alexander Pierre as his warm-hearted teen son Cory (whose desire to play football runs head-first into Troy’s desire to be the Big Man of the House); and Brian D. Coats as Troy’s brain-damaged brother Gabriel, a visible reminder of Troy’s sins and also a harbinger of coming death with his talk of chasing hellhounds and opening St. Peter’s gate (Gabriel, true to his name, carries a trumpet everywhere he goes).

All in all, it’s a powerful night of theater full of terrific performances, poetic dialogue and rich symbolism — including the titular fence that Troy and Cory slowly build in their back yard, a multi-use symbol that represents family, love, racism, life’s limitations and the emotional barriers we sometimes put up.

“Some people build fences to keep people out,” Bono tells Troy at one point. “Other people build fences to keep people in.”

Sure, Florida Rep is late to the August Wilson party. Local semi-professional troupe Theatre Conspiracy is already into year three of its ambitious plan to stage one Century Cycle play each season (including “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in March).

But Florida Rep’s new artistic director, Greg Longenhagen, hopes this is the start of something bigger for the downtown theater company. Longenhagen and his team want to continue staging plays that reach out to diverse audiences, including perhaps more August Wilson work in the future.

“It’s important to do this kind of work,” he told me recently. “This is a writer that needs to be heard.”

And at Florida Rep, that writer’s voice is finally coming through, loud and clear.

Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)

If you go

What: “Fences”

When: Now through Jan. 30

Where: Florida Repertory Theatre, 2267 Bay St., downtown Fort Myers

Tickets: $49-$55

Info: 332-4488 or floridarep.org