OF all the things to note about the Pasadena Playhouse's starry revival of August Wilson's "Fences," surely the happiest is that Laurence Fishburne has once again found a stage role big enough for his husky talent.
The buzz may be because he's teaming up with his "What's Love Got to Do With It" costar Angela Bassett. But the real deal here is his portrayal of Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker with a burdensome sense of responsibility and a volatile temper to go with it.
James Earl Jones, who won a Tony for the part when "Fences" premiered on Broadway in 1987, possessed the ideal size (physically and theatrically) for a character Wilson describes as striving to "fill out" and accommodate his imposing heft. Smaller in build, Fishburne nonetheless makes Troy his mountainous own.
Donning an oversize garbage man get-up, he enters his backyard talking harmless trash with fellow hauler Bono (Wendell Pierce), and it's clear straight away that something special is going on.
The tip-off comes from Fishburne's vocally rich, full-body command of the everyday rhythm-and-blues banter that Wilson had a gift for spinning into soul-revealing song. As sorrowful as it is brutal, the music resounds in his acting, note by magisterial note, which shouldn't come as a surprise, given Fishburne's Tony-winning turn in Wilson's "Two Trains Running."
Beyond his seismic performance, the production, which opened Friday under the direction of Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps, is good, not great. Bassett, disappointingly, becomes something of a liability, offering a curiously mannered rendering of Troy's persevering wife, Rose.
But this reencounter with "Fences," coming on the heels of Jeffrey Hayden's slower-paced yet richly observed staging at the Odyssey Theatre, confirms that the playwright, who died last year after completing his decade-by-decade, 10-play cycle of 20th century African American history, is still the most reliable source of morally complex, emotionally resonant roles for black actors.
As a protagonist, Troy has a fearsome histrionic power. Taking a swig from his Friday-night bottle, he kicks back with his buddy while Rose peels potatoes for his supper. It's a weekend ritual that's been going on for nearly as long as their 18-year marriage. The indisputable king of his castle, he exercises a Ralph Kramden-like prerogative that boisterously establishes the blue-collar 1950s milieu in which the drama is set.
Like all of Wilson's plays, "Fences" is a portrait of a character riddled with contradictions, the fault lines of history etching themselves in flesh and blood. The action is pitched around a series of escalating conflicts between Troy and his youngest son, Cory (Bryan Clark), a high school football star being recruited for a college team.
A former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, Troy doesn't want his son to follow in his footsteps. Not trusting that Jackie Robinson's breakthrough has changed anything for athletes of color, he assumes his son will face the bitter ghettoized trajectory of a would-be sports star doomed to a life of unskilled, unsatisfying labor.
These scenes of generational strife, though the overly familiar stuff of midcentury drama, are written with such raw intensity that the only valid comparison is with the crushing personal visions of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. What lends them further sting is the way they incorporate the injustice of the African American experience in the long post-slavery limbo before the civil rights era.
The best moments don't always play as well here as they read. Clark's Cory doesn't come into focus until late in the game. Part of the problem is the staging, which is so dominated by set designer Gary L. Wissmann's two-story brick house that there's little room for anyone to move except Fishburne, around whom all naturally revolves. Clark's blurry presence doesn't allow us to develop a deep enough acquaintance with the boy until his rage is at full throttle.
As Lyons, Troy's older son from a previous marriage, Kadeem Hardison makes a stronger impression. A wayward musician regularly dropping by for a handout, Lyons is both the butt of his father's ridicule and the source of his sharpest guilt for not having been there when he was growing up. Hardison captures the resentment and rapport in equal measure.
One of the more challenging dimensions of Wilson's work is the mix of the real and the supernatural, which typically takes the form of an otherworldly character with access to either the buried past or the anxious future. This assignment in "Fences" goes to Gabriel (exceptionally well handled by Orlando Jones), Troy's brain-injured brother, who carries a trumpet like the angel he's named for and seems unusually concerned that his family members make it to heaven.