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Justice Theater Project's Fences 

click to enlarge Barbette Hunter and John Rogers Harris in "Fences" - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JUSTICE THEATER PROJECT

Fences

The Justice Theater Project
at Pittman Auditorium, St. Mary's School
Through Feb. 28

There's a big man I want you to meet. His name's Troy Maxson.

As fully embodied by John Rogers Harris under the direction of Deb Royals (with an able assist from Herbert Eley) in the current Justice Theater Project production of August Wilson's Fences, he towers over the Pittman Auditorium stage at St. Mary's School in Raleigh, an angry, profane, drunken god, hurling Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning invective like thunderbolts, wielding a pint of gin as if it were a crystal scepter. And when he puts it down and picks up his old, gray baseball bat, be advised: Troy Maxson intends to make a point—one way or another.

This show gives us the gift of an outsize character with outsize proclivities and tastes. Troy's passion for his wife, Rose, is truly as pronounced as his thirst for drink. And when the inevitable morning after comes, his hangover is equally profound. It's been a while since I've seen a character as large or as vividly drawn on any regional stage, no matter the size. In a time of economic—and, apparently, aesthetic—downsizing in local theaters, it's refreshing to see an actor and a company unafraid to swing for the rafters.

Not, I should probably add, that Royals and Harris manage to score every single time at bat in this production. Their interpretation of Maxson, the middle-aged garbage truck driver whose dreams of major league baseball were cut short by racist policies in the time of the Negro Leagues, veers, on a couple of occasions, toward bathos. But with what I'd calculate as an .800 batting average for this production, you really ought to check it out.

click to enlarge John Rogers Harris (left) and Jade Arnold in "Fences" - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JUSTICE THEATER PROJECT

A mostly strong supporting cast abets this urban titan. As Rose, Barbette Hunter gives as good as she gets, convincing us as a middle-aged woman trying to convince herself that she's in the best of all possible marriages. She frets about Troy's drinking, his broad gestures and his tall tales. She also registers fear for her children when he gets out of hand. But in a second-act crisis, Rose stands her ground.

The other uncanny character in this production is Thomasi McDonald's take on Gabriel, Troy's permanently shell-shocked brother. Choreographer Joy Williams gives McDonald's Gabriel a series of tics and shudders, upper-body contortions and locomotion by exaggerated crouches and high steps that at different points recall a sanctified church dance, documentary footage of voudoun ceremonies and Baba Chuck Davis' ethnographic research into the tribal dances of West Africa. McDonald's sepulchral voice and offbeat timing reinforce the notion of a man convinced he's been handed a trumpet that can open the gates of heaven—since he believes he's already died.

Lester Hill fights an unhelpful stiffness early on as Troy's drinking buddy, Jim Bono. An inexperienced Tyrone Hicks mimics Branford Marsalis with only partial success as Lyons, one of the sons of Troy and Rose, while Jade Arnold demonstrates more believable velocity than range as Cory, the son who ultimately challenges the big man. A young Maya Bryant alternates with Rachel Woods Barnes on different nights of this production as Maxson's daughter, Raynell.

To counter the harsh realities clearly depicted in Royals' run-down set, Wilson sculpts a brash character unafraid to call out Death or the devil, as Troy does in several scenes. His Maxson is no saint; his miscalculations of the heart ultimately set him apart from almost everyone he loves. But Troy finds the courage to meet his fate on his own terms. More than once he says, "I don't intend to go quietly," before he finally accepts the gravest responsibility for his own acts. Wilson suggests, in a moving closing scene, that when one man can rise and do that, others can follow.

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