The Big League 

Hattiloo knocks a modern classic out of the park.

I possess a fairly reliable recipe for making an August Wilson play. To begin, you take Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and paint it black. Then you take the wholesome, all-American backyard setting of Miller's All My Sons, wreck it, and move it to the slums of Anytown, USA. Add a pinch of hope to brighten the corners of the bleakest family tragedies of the 20th century, then fold all these ingredients together with such densely imagistic language that even Shakespeare might be envious. Let it all simmer over a low heat for about three hours and applaud.

Fences, which is currently getting a healthy workout at the Hattiloo Theatre, is just such an amalgamation of American theatrical styles and traditions. But when Wilson's prize-winning plays are well-cast and hitting on all cylinders, they can make you forget those out-of-date honkies to which he's so frequently compared.

Fences' success is due in no small part to T.C. Sharpe's tour-de-force performance in the role of Troy Maxon, a part made famous by James Earl Jones. Troy is an Everyman of the ghetto, and in his life he has been many things to many people: a robber, an inmate, a Negro League heavy-hitter, a husband, a father, a drunken adulterer, a garbage man, an unaware civil rights hero, and role model (deserving and un-).

It's an unlikely success story for Sharpe, a versatile character actor whose lengthy resume includes star turns in an array of dramatic productions. He's probably best known for his unforgettable performance as the hilarious praying pimp in Craig Brewer's debut film, The Poor & Hungry. But Troy Maxon is frequently described in the play's dialogue as a big-handed colossus of a man who physically fills his entire house, and for all of his actorly gifts, Sharpe, who's half a head shorter than just about everybody else in the cast and with an affable grin that lights up the room, is anything but an intimidating giant. In this case, size doesn't matter. Sharpe enlarges Troy's fury and his personal magnetism, creating the illusion that his hero of the black diamond is the biggest, baddest thing in the house.

Wilson's plays are deeply influenced by blues music, and Troy, like so many of the playwright's protagonists, brags and bullshits about his life, blending harsh truths with improbable fictions about wrestling with death and dealing with the devil until it becomes impossible to tell where reality leaves off and the myths begin. All we ever know for sure is that he hit seven home runs off of famed pitcher Satchel Paige, and the more he picks up white folks' trash, the more he resents the fact that by the time blacks were allowed to play Major League baseball, he was too old for the team. This resentment blinds him to the fact that race barriers are slowly breaking down because people like him keep knocking them down. In his blindness he wrecks his son's chance to earn a college football scholarship. A remorseless infidelity nearly wrecks everything that defines him as a man.

Patricia Smith is a study in endurance and quiet strength as Rose, Troy's devoted wife. Her subtle performance complements Sharpe's more aggressive approach to the material. Tony Wright is heartbreaking as Gabe, Troy's brother, a harmless simpleton and the underwritten heart of the play.

Gabe's mind was destroyed fighting for his country during WWII, and run-ins with the cops and life in a mental hospital are the ultimate rewards for his heroism. Like Wright, B.J. Williams milks every drop of dark, low-key comedy from his role as Lyons, Troy's ne'er-do-well son by a previous marriage.

The Hattiloo's cramped stage intensifies the real and metaphorical claustrophobia Troy wrestles with as he builds a fence around his property to keep the hellhounds out and his own doglike urges contained. The physical tightness brings an element of uncomfortable realism to Wilson's poeticized vision of the 'hood.

Fences is long and repetitive, and the script falters at the very end as the playwright seeks to tack on a more optimistic conclusion than the play can support. Director Ekundayo Bandele carefully navigates these potential pitfalls and infuses the unnecessary last scene with the kind of nervous tension usually reserved for hospital waiting rooms. Were it not for last season's electrifying production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog, Fences would be the most mature, satisfying show the still-young Hattiloo Theatre has produced.

Through December 7th 

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