Troy Maxson, the intensely flawed head of household at the center of August Wilson's epic play "Fences," doesn't dispense tough love. It's more like rough love.
Those on the receiving end can either learn to accept it, or learn how to duck.
In Everyman Theatre's gripping revival of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, Troy's fiercely held beliefs, fiercely fought battles (and, on paydays, fiercely gripped gin bottles) register with visceral impact.
Likewise, the breadth and insight of Wilson's writing can be felt at every turn; the words leap off the stage and head straight for you, thanks to some dig-deep actors. If you don't have a protective covering for your own emotions, you just might end up like me, frequently moist-eyed, as the performance progresses.
Belonging to Wilson's 10-play cycle tracing African-American life in the 20th century, "Fences" is at once highly specific — a Pittsburgh neighborhood, 1957; a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues now working as a city garbageman, fighting a discriminatory policy — and universal.
Troy is hardly the first man to feel cheated by a father, by the law, by fate. He's not the first parent determined to keep his own child from facing the same disappointments. And he sure as heck isn't the first husband to stray from a marriage, even as he convinces himself that it's inevitable and not really so bad.
Wilson brilliantly pulls you into Troy's world and all of its issues — racial, social, economic — while reminding you how related we all are when it comes to basic needs and dreams, messing up, trying to do better next time.
And then there's the inevitable reckoning with death that ties us all together. Mortality is a frequent, fanciful topic for Troy, not necessarily a fear. Death, to him, is just "a fastball on the outside corner," and he'll be ready for the pitch.
With its mix of the mundane and the weighty, the humorous and painful, "Fences" gives a nod to the past — especially Shakespeare, with the archetype of the fool personified here by Troy's war-damaged brother, Gabriel. Shades of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller pass over the text, too.
But Wilson's stamp is so strong and distinctive that, even when cliches slip in or when things get a little too heavily metaphoric, the play clicks firmly. Its ability to make a visceral connection with audiences is one reason "Fences" achieved classic status.
Clinton Turner Davis guides the Everyman staging with expert timing and nuance. The actors, expertly costumed by David Burdick, seem to inhabit, not just perform on, James Fouchard's wonderful set. (More varied lighting would be welcome.)
In one corner of the drab frontyard at the Maxson home is a gnarly tree that seems to reflect Troy's stature and character — rock solid at the center, limbs stretching wildly, freely.
Alan Bomar Jones burrows into the good and bad of Troy, giving both their due. In the scene when Troy thwarts the hopes of his youngest son Cory (a promising professional debut by Brayden Simpson) — "It's my duty to take care of you … I ain't got to like you" — Jones makes the words sting so sharply that you flinch. But the actor also lets Troy's heart emerge beneath the shouts and threats.
As Rose, the wife who has devoted herself to Troy for 18 years, Joy Jones does stellar work. She effortlessly conveys the woman's noble nature, sometimes with nothing more than a glance, a slight stiffening of the shoulder. For all of the hurt she endures, Rose never loses her way, as Jones reveals most affectingly in the second act.
Bryant Bentley gives a terrific performance as the unfortunate Gabriel, conveying every tic, every childish reaction with naturalness and uncommon poignancy. The rest of the cast provides steady support in this highly satisfying production of a great American play.