Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
This has been a banner year for August Wilson: the film version of Fences was released to great acclaim, and two theater companies in the region have had ongoing August Wilson series, with American Stage finishing their complete traversal with Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Now Venice Theater with its dedication to diversity has jumped on the bandwagon with this fine production of Fences.
Director Kristofer Geddie, who also holds the title Director of Diversity at the company, and Executive Director Murray Chase decided that the central role of Troy Maxson was too great a challenge to cast locally, so they put out feelers, looking for an experienced black actor who might be interested in a crack at one of the greatest parts in black theater. They found their man in Phillip Cherry, whose homebase is the Louisville Actors Theatre and Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. He is stunning as Troy, previously an up and comer in the Negro baseball leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. who got way laid by a stint in prison. Just to try and convey the strength of his performance, I preferred him to Denzel Washington in the movie because Denzel is not the stage animal that Mr. Cherry is, with more edge to his portrayal of Troy.
The rest of the parts have been cast locally. Phyllis Banks is Troy's wife Rose, 18 years and counting. I like Ms. Bank's take on the role, and I wonder if a more forceful woman could last a long time with Troy and his built up demons. In the second act when Rose has to show her inner strength, Ms. Banks rises to the occasion. Unfortunately, when Ms. Banks is not center stage or forward, some of her words get lost; I hope she can correct this minor blemish on an otherwise excellent performance. Willie Marte is Lyons, Troy's older son from a previous marriage. Todd Bellamy II plays Cory, Troy's son with Rose. In other versions of this play Cory has been played by an actor of perhaps mid twenties, playing younger. Mr. Bellamy is a 10th grader, about 16 and lacks the emotional depth to explore the full range of this part, but otherwise acquits himself nicely. Edwin Watson as Troy's longtime friend Jim Bono perfectly captures the easy going camaraderie that August Wilson depicts so brilliantly. Carroll Hunter fleshes out a small role to turn in a memorable cameo as Troy's war-damaged brother Gabriel. Catalina Grieco completes the cast as daughter Raynell in the last scene, set in a later time.
Mr. Geddie directs with a strong hand, getting fine performances from most of his cast and decent performances from others who don't quite have the acting chops for Wilson's complex characters. The last scene, as all the other characters gather before going off to Troy's funeral, is problematic and the director has not been able to solve any of the problems it poses. I find that endings are August Wilson's bête noire in that several of his finest plays suffer weak or worse endings, The Piano Lesson being a prime example if not an isolated one. Here we have characters that have lived in front of us over not a long period of time suddenly thrust eight or nine years into the future and the writing is not a big help.
Tim Wisgerhof has provided a perfect setting, so perfect that a couple of audience members wanted to move around in it at intermission to connect even more strongly with the characters. Nicholas Hartman performs miracles of inventiveness with his costumes, each character changing clothes from scene to scene when budget restrictions often require the audience to imagine this. Dorian Boyd and Jaclyn Ledoux are the sound designers and Robert Graham lights the production with artistry.
This is really a fine production of Fences. Venice Theatre has every right to be very proud.
Venice Theater presents Fences through May 21, 2017. 140 West Tampa Ave., Venice, FL. Box Office (941) 488-1115 or www.venicestage.com.