Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is frequently credited for introducing the concept of a dramatic tragedy about a common man. But despite all the bluster and talk about Willy’s former greatness, nothing about him ever was great Miller even labeled his hero with a last name that sounds like “low man.” There’s no grandeur to “Salesman;” it lacks the essential fall from grace because Willy was never in a state of grace.
On its surface, August Wilson’s “Fences,” now at Dallas Theater Center, looks uncannily like an African-American version of “Salesman,” the setting moved to the segregated slums of Pittsburgh. But in many ways the play, and certainly this production, achieves something more poignant.
It’s the 1950s, and Troy Maxson (Wendell Wright) works as a garbage collector to provide for his family: wife Rose (Wandachristine), teenaged son Cory (Robert Christopher Riley) and Lyons (Che Ayende), his grown son from a prior marriage. Troy can be both jovial and hard, affectionate one second, cold and arbitrary the next.
For long stretches, the action seems limited to deftly embroidered conversations about largely inconsequential matters, less exposition than stream-of-consciousness chatter.
But Wilson is really constructing genuine characters before our eyes. He doles out information in dense spoonfuls, recounting small but purposeful events that, like cod liver oil, seem harmless enough for a second, then rattle you like thunderclaps.
The revelations take on a mythological quality that give “Fences” a weightiness beyond “Salesman.” It reminds you how closely tied classical myths are to folk gospel.
The ensemble is as perfectly pitched as any cast could be, but special note goes to Wright and Wandachristine (pictured), who burrow into their characters like moles. Watching their passionate pas de deux of a marriage.
Despite its blue-collar roots, “Fences” is a tragedy in the classic sense. Troy the man seems as defeated as Troy the city-state, only in his case, the fence designed to keep others out merely locked him in withdrawn, like the king on his throne, a symbol of power who has lost touch with those who matter.
Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through April 1. $15-$60. 214-522-8499.
Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 16, 2007