By Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN
WOODSTOCK – Vermonters have the unusual opportunity, right now, to experience authentic African-American theater here, produced by a Vermont theater company.
JAG Productions opened an excellent production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Fences” Saturday at Woodstock Town Hall Theatre, one that proved funny, touching, devastating and, finally, reassuring. Performances run through May 7.
Wilson (1945-2005) wrote “Fences” in 1985 to be the sixth of his 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” also called the “American Century Cycle,” each reflecting African-American life during a different decade, beginning in 1900. (JAG Productions hopes to present the entire cycle, one each year.) Opening on Broadway in 1987, “Fences” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the Tony Award for Best Play, among many awards.
Set in 1957 Pittsburgh, “Fences” tells of an embittered black man’s internal battle with the Grim Reaper. Once a Negro baseball league star, Troy Maxson is now a garbage man, and his bitterness infects his relations with his family. But his anger and narcissism began much earlier in his hardscrabble life — as is revealed in the course of the play.
“Fences” is powerful storytelling, about as potent as it gets in the JAG Production, beautifully directed by founder and Artistic Director Jarvis Green. Not surprisingly, most of the all-black cast is imported, though not all, but Green, who lives in White River Junction, has been directing professional theater in Vermont since he moved here in 2011.
Brian Anthony Wilson was most powerful as the bigger-than-life Troy. He was most convincing as he peeled Troy’s layers, from all-around good guy to cornered animal. Contrasting was Danielle Lee Greaves’ dimensional and irresistible Rose, who deeply cares for her troubled husband — until he pushes her too far.
Gabriel Jenkinson, a Dartmouth College student, gave authenticity to Cory, Troy and Rose’s teen son, whose relationship with his overbearing father is more about fear than love. The only person who seems to temper Troy is his old friend Jim Bono, given an earthy and reassuring performance by Ralph McCain.
Nathaniel Ryan was convincing as Lyons, Troy’s ne’er-do-well son from a previous marriage, as was Jolie Garrett’s portrayal of Troy’s brain-injured brother Gabriel. Celia Graham, a Lyme (N.H.) third grader, made her stage debut charmingly as Raynell, the latest progeny of Troy’s ego. Still, what was most impressive was the ensemble — it was like fine chamber music.
The physical production benefited from some of Vermont’s best. Carl Tallent’s backyard setting of Troy’s respectable but urban-decayed backyard was expertly lit by Anthony Pellecchia. Trisha Denton’s costumes were unusually authentic, and Alek Diva’s recorded incidental music successfully underscored the atmosphere.
JAG Productions’ “Fences” proved a powerful, rewarding and memorable experience — just what great theater is all about.
JAG Productions presents August Wilson’s “Fences” April 27 – May 7 at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre, 31 The Green in Woodstock. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30, and Saturday, May 6; and 5 p.m. Sunday, May 7. Tickets are $30, $28 for seniors, $17 for 17 and younger; call 802-457-3981, or go online to www.jagproductions.com.
Courtesy JAG Productions
Cory (Gabriel Jenkinson) receives an unwanted lesson from his father Troy (Brian Anthony Wilson) in August Wilson’s “Fences.”