I have heard that if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, it’ll leap right out. But, if you start out with cool water and gently raise the temperature to a boil, it’ll go to its death with a big hot-tubby, frog smile on his face. Now, as a person who hasn’t actually done a lot of frog boiling, I can’t say if this is truth, but I can say that during the final act of Fences at Pioneer Memorial Theater, I felt a bit like a frog who is starting to think, “Is it getting hot in here?”
The play, running through Jan. 21, is a mid-century tale about the lives of a black family in Pittsburgh. Troy (Michael Anthony Williams) is the patriarch struggling to make ends meet and trying hard to outlive his unrealized dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. Troy played in the Negro Leagues before Major League Baseball was integrated and now works as a garbage man who lives with his wife Rose (Gayle Samuels) and his son Cory (Jimmie ‘J.J.’ Jeter). There’s also his brother, a disabled veteran named Gabriel (Jefferson A. Russell), a stepson, Lyons—a jovial jazzman with an expensive clothing habit—and his friend and coworker, Bono (Jeorge Bennett Watson).
Back to the frog thing—Troy’s bitterness at the world isn’t apparent in the opening scene, which is the very picture of domestic charm and comfort. In that scene, Troy returns home from work on a blessed Friday with his paycheck and a pint of gin in his pocket, laughing and joking with Bono. He and Rose playfully bicker and flirt and we’re given the impression that life, although lean, is good. But slowly, Troy’s anger at his lot starts to simmer and soon enough he is in raging stubborn conflict with everyone around him. Meanwhile, he is half-assedly building a fence in the yard, presumably to keep his family safe and secure, but by the end he has pushed everybody he loves (or says he loves, it’s hard to tell) beyond the fence and sits in simmering bitter rage on the stoop watching his final years go by.
We want to like Troy. He can be very charming, after all. We can see the good in him, his dedication to provide and be a good husband, but somehow he can’t let that be. He can’t see past his pride and stubbornness. By the end of the play, the water is boiling and we, the audience, are squirming watching an undoing that can’t be undone. (Get it? Like frogs! Congratulations. You survived the tortured metaphor.)
The hard work of incrementally ratcheting-up Troy’s bile is ably handled by Williams, who leads this cast filled with heavy-hitters from the regional theater scene. Williams stalks the stage like a prowling wolf, leveling his fearsome eyes on victims with thrilling ferocity. His co-star Samuels, as the proud Rose, gives good as she gets and the play becomes a mesmerizing duel of two actors’ talents.
However, it is difficult to see that these two ever loved each other. Even in the opening scene, Rose distant and wooden. Perhaps this is an acting choice, but I wanted to see more chemistry and hints of good times to contrast the bad and to reconcile Rose’s eulogy at the play’s touching conclusion.
The rest of the cast ably supports the duo with a special shout out to Jeter, who plays Troy’s son Cory, a primary target of his father’s venom. Although Cory doesn’t flat out kill Troy in the final act, Jeter convincingly shows the son’s struggle between fear and bravery, hate and love. (And honestly, at that point, I think most of us in the audience would have contemplated taking a bat to Troy too.)
Fences, is a welcome, bracing slap in the face in this New Year. It’s straight-up theater, just the raw stuff here—a stage, a simple set and complicated characters. Most of all, it is an opportunity to see an excellent cast lift up two great performances and to remember how lost we can get in the complexity of one family’s story.
Go see plays.
Fences runs through Jan. 21, 2017 at The Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre. Buy tickets here.