Arizona Theatre Company's 'Fences' a masterful staging of the classic play

As a general rule, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, nor a play by its set. It's wise to open the pages or let the cast step onstage before forming opinions.

But to judge the Arizona Theatre Company's production of "Fences" on Feb. 13 by its set would be a fine compliment, one that turns out to be consistently reinforced throughout the play.

The curtain at Herberger Center Stage rose to reveal a scene that not only reminisced about the 1950's but drove the audience straight into the heart of the decade. A two-story brick house sat in between a background of hazy skies and telephone poles and a foreground featuring a life-size tree and functional clothing line.

Audience members probably could have spent the full two and a half hours just looking at the richly adorned set and walked out of the Herberger Theater Center feeling satisfied that they had gotten their money's worth.

Instead, a team of actors stepped forward and delivered one of the strongest performances of Phoenix's 2015-2016 theater season. Combining a timeless Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning play with an experienced and dynamic cast is a recipe for staging success, and in that respect, ATC hit the ball out of the park.

"Fences" was written by esteemed playwright August Wilson as part of a series of plays examining the racial divide that African Americans have faced in the U.S. throughout the 20th century. The play premiered in 1985, and its plot is set in 1957 and 1965.

The story follows Troy Maxson (David Alan Anderson), a 53-year-old African-American garbage collector who has struggled to provide for his family since segregation forced him to give up his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player.

His family includes a loving and supportive wife Rose (Kim Staunton), their son Cory (Edgar Sanchez), a son named Lyons from one of Troy's previous relationships (James T. Alfred), and Troy's brother Gabriel (Terry Bellamy). Troy's lifelong best friend Jim Bono (Marcus Naylor) is so close that he's practically a member of the family too.

Right off the bat, Troy is set apart from nearly every other protagonist with one crucial trait: he's not particularly kind nor friendly. He still manages to be likable at times, but by no means does he fit the typical model of a hero.

Troy's mother left their family when he was a child, and his resulting rocky childhood and sketchy past — including a stint in prison — have forced him to pursue dominance over his surroundings, illustrated by the fences he builds around the house over the course of the play to keep his family together and safe from the evil of the world.

The play is about Troy's place in society as it slowly grew more inclusive of African-Americans, a little too late for him to pursue his own dreams. It examines the responsibilities and duty owed to one's family, the nature of life and death and whether or not betrayal can destroy the strongest bonds.

Such a heavy array of themes requires actors and actresses with experience and talent, and the ATC production delivers in an unforgettable way.

The true strength of the performance comes down to the cast, which is so packed with supreme talent, there's no way to name a single stand out performance from the whole play. The fact that every single actor was at the top of his or her game speaks to the masterful art of collaboration among performers who know exactly how to act out scenes of familial geniality, then in seconds switch to furious fits of rage and passion.

It also says a lot about the cast when not a single line felt scripted. The dialogue and staging of "Fences" flowed in a way that appeared effortless but was certainly the result of much hard work.

On Saturday night, the Herberger theater was packed with an audience completely attuned to the performance. They laughed at the jokes, gasped at the revelationsand watched with bated breath as the drama unfolded before them. It was almost as interesting to watch their reactions as to watch the play itself.

It is rare and thrilling to be a member of an audience that feels the emotions of the play so deeply. "Fences" reminded me of the power that theater has, to envelope us in a different world and wrap our minds around new concepts and themes.

In two and a half hours, the play told the story of not only the Maxson family but also generations of real people who dealt with the same issues.

Few shows have moved me in the way that "Fences" managed to open my eyes to the reality of life for African Americans in pre-Civil Rights America. By telling a raw, honest story of an imperfect man whose life was affected by the society, and using a stellar cast to do it, the show went far beyond the stage.

More information about the ATC production of "Fences" can be found on the company's website.

Related Links:

'Becoming Dr. Ruth' to bring the life of WWII survivor, sex therapist to Herberger stage

Herberger Theater stages 'Disgraced,' poses questions of U.S. race and identity


Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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