The show: August Wilson's "Fences" at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven
What makes it special?: The revival is directed by Phylicia Rashad, who has starred in and staged several of Wilson's works.
First Impressions: It's been near 30 years since Wilson's work had its dazzling premiere in 1985 at Yale Repertory Theatre and time has done nothing but give this play an even deeper and richer sheen. Long Wharf's thrust stage gives the production an intimate look at the Maxson home and backyard, bringing family conflicts up-close and personal.
Though Esau Pritchett is a physically towering figure as Troy Maxson, the bitter middle-aged sanitation worker at the center of the play, he doesn't quite measure up to the description of him as a man so big he fills up the tenement house just by walking through it. Though there's dignity, humor and strength in his characterization, the sense of combustable danger is lacking.
But that also goes for much of the production in general with direction so low-key or stiff that there doesn't seem to be much at stake, despite Wilson's powerful words to the contrary. So the play's big moments are dramatically diminished, Wilson's arias are nearly asides, and the fierce phrases that the characters use to strike each other with stunning force, are now whiffs.
Still, the story and the characters that Wilson had created remain vivid, moving and unforgettable.
What's it about?: It seemingly centers on the father-son struggle in the best family drama tradition but it's so much more.
Like..?: The changing dynamic of race in mid-20th century America. Set in the Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh in 1957, 53-year-old Maxson has received no breaks in life. An extraordinary baseball player, Maxson's talent was confined to the Negro Leagues and he was too old to play when the color barrier was broken. Now his high school-age son Cory has the opportunity to get a college sports scholarship but the resentful Maxson demands his son take a useful trade and lead a dutiful, responsible life, such as he did. But Cory sees his generation's future differently than his father's does.
This conflicting view of race, identity and values is at the heart of the narrative and Wilson's richly-drawn characters, dramatic set pieces and dialogue and storytelling that is elevated with touches of jazz, blues and poetry will keep audiences engaged throughout.
And the performances?: Fine, true and human even if some lack the depth of passion that can make a scene pop.
Portia plays Maxson's wife Rose, the self-aware woman who has "planted herself" in the hard and rocky relationship with her husband. She brings realness to the complex role but her big dramatic moments in the second act are static. Chris Myers's yearning Cory is minus the psychological heft (physically, too, for a football candidate) to play against his formidable father.
But Jared McNeill is mesmerizing as Troy's son by a previous affair; Phil McGlaston is warm and solid as Troy's longtime friend; Taylor Dior is a find and a delight as Raynell, Troy's very young daughter; and G. Alverez Reid is terrific as Troy's mentally impaired, horn-playing brother Gabriel.
Who will like it?: Many Wilson fans. Fathers and sons.
Who won't: Those looking for fireworks in the incendiary passages.
For the kids?: Teens and pre-teens, especially young men, will find significant connections.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: 'Fences' remains vivid even when production isn't.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: I kept thinking of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," another of the great American theatrical works of the 20th Century: the dilapidated backyard setting, the father-son struggle, the husband-wife relationship, the characters of the best friend, brother and second son, even the elegiac ending. Both great American tragedies resonate deeply, profoundly and will continue to do so for ages to come.
The basics: "Fences'' plays the main stage at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, and continues through Dec. 22. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. On Sunday, Dec. 22 there is only a 2 p.m. performance. Tickets are $44.50 to $79.50, including service fees. Information: 203 787-4282 and www.longwharf.org.