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Arizona Theatre Company

5 reasons to see ATC's latest hit, 'Fences'

August Wilson's Pulitizer Prize-winning play may be one of the best dramatic presentations in Tucson this season

Arizona Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s “Fences” is a wonderful example of script, actors and production all coming together for full effect. Here are five reasons for catching what may be one of the best dramatic presentations in Tucson this season.

It starts with great material

August Wilson is one of the best writers on 20th century black culture, exemplified by his Pittsburgh Cycle: 10 interwoven plays set across the decades and located in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a poor, nearly all-black neighborhood wedged between the city’s bustling downtown and its mansion-dotted university area.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” is one of the great plays of the American theatre, a beautifully written personal tale with mythic overtones of a black family’s struggles for happiness in Pittsburgh circa 1957.

A complex tragic hero

Central character Troy Maxson is a complex creation, richly drawn by Wilson. We quickly and easily learn his back story. Now middle-aged, he was forced into a life of crime as an abused 14-year-old runaway. In prison, his athletic abilities emerged, only to have his ambitions thwarted by racial barriers. His noble struggle for equality risks his present financial security. His tragic flaw is his submerged fiery passion, echoing his own father’s violence.

An excellent actor in the lead

The biggest demand on any company producing “Fences” is an actor capable of carrying the larger than life, yet all-too human role of Troy. These are big shoes to fill – James Earl Jones won a Tony Award when he premiered the role in 1987.

From the moment David Alan Andersen strides onstage at the Temple of Music and Art, he gives a masterful performance as the hard working, lust-for-life patriarch. His commanding opening repartee with syncophant Bono establishes Troy’s fading but still potent athleticism. Andersen embodies Troy’s strengths and weaknesses magnificently as he glories in his success and then is humiliated by his sins. He gives a superb, subtle performance in the critical scene when Troy rises to accept responsibility for the fate he has created.

Quality production

Director Lou Bellamy has organized actors, set, and script into an impressive production, nicely enhanced by bold lighting and clear sound. He quickly establishes a bawdy tone that introduces us to Troy’s world, giving pauses for laughter. His kinetic direction also hints at the troubling undercurrents within Troy. During Troy’s shaming, Bellamy kept the timing languid enough to feel the pain, but quick enough to not draw it out, underscoring the gravitas of the price Troy must pay.

Having grown up in Pittsburgh, I particularly admired the well designed set (Vicki Smith), a surprisingly evocative Hill District of cramped, aging brick structures, accurate down to their retrofitted powerlines. The sound design (Brian Jerome Peterson) includes a range of appropriate period music from raw rural blues to '50s gospel (Sam Cook before he became an R&B singer). Lighting (Dan Darnutzer) created a Devil and hellhounds real enough to invite discussion of Troy’s interior and exterior motivations.

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A fine supporting cast

Though “Fences” revolves around its main character, a strong ensemble completes the work. ATC (in association with Milwaukee Repertory Theatre for the production) has that here. Marcus Naylor plays second banana Bono with gusto, basking in the shadow of Troy’s charisma. Kim Staunton, as wife Rose, shines as the life companion who cannot save her husband from himself. Terry Bellamy gives a sweet twist as innocent Gabriel, Troy’s addled brother who supplies both comedy and soothsaying.

As Troy’s ambitious son Cory, Edgar Sanchez at first seems a bit too contemporary and exaggerated in his gestures. But in action scenes with his father, including a harrowing and extremely well choreographed fight sequence with a baseball bat, he is excellent. Lyons, Troy’s much older son from a prior relationship, is mostly comic relief and James T. Alfred gives him a glib, smooth jazz richness. In the final scene, which takes place without Troy, child actress Simeeyah Grace Baker nearly steals the show with her charm and grace.

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Jan 31, 2016, 8:34 pm
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It’s a fabulous production—the equal of any I’ve seen in New York or London. Go!

(If you can’t afford the regular admission prices, try for a rush ticket, usually available at the box office an hour before curtain. The person who answered the phone at ATC told my friend that they’ve never turned away anyone who wanted a rush admission.)

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Tim Fuller

David Alan Andersen knocks it out of the park as the star of ATC's 'Fences,' with Kim Staunton, Terry Bellamy, James T. Alfred, and Marcus Naylor.

If you go

  • What: August Wilson’s “Fences,” presented by the Arizona Theatre Company
  • When: Through Saturday, February 6. Performance times vary. Visit arizonatheatre.org for exact schedule.
  • Where: The Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
  • Tickets: Reserved seats $42-$68 with half-price rush tickets available one hour prior to performances. Tickets available at the Temple of Music and Art Box Office, 622-2823 and online at arizonatheatre.org