Susan Saccoccia | 9/23/2009, 5:14 a.m.
(Eric Antoniou photo)Susan Saccoccia Warner Miller (left) and...


The Huntington Theatre Company opens its 2009-2010 season with August Wilson’s “Fences,” a masterpiece set in the ’50s, written in the ’80s, and, as directed by Kenny Leon, stirringly up to date.

Playwright Wilson (1945-2005) said that, like James Baldwin, he sought to show “that black tradition … that can sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.” “Fences” is the sixth chapter in his epic, 10-play cycle exploring the African American experience through each decade of the 20th century, and the ninth of his plays to be staged by the Huntington.

A mythmaker with the material of daily life, Wilson portrayed the struggle of African Americans to attain dignity and happiness against huge odds. “Fences” shows how a family can be both a sustaining refuge and an obstacle in that struggle.

Although the story is told through the specifics of a poor, striving black family in 1957 urban America, a setting faithfully rendered by the costumes and stage set, it is also about the basics of any family: the relationships between a man and a woman, a father and son, and two brothers — and what each chooses to hold fast and let go to have a good life.

At the center of these relationships is Troy Maxson, performed with passion by John Beasley, who has played Troy twice before. He fully inhabits the role first performed by James Earl Jones in the ’87-’88 Broadway production, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play.

Although it is often funny, the play plumbs the anguish and aspirations of its characters. This graceful and luminous staging by Leon, one of the few directors who have produced all 10 plays in Wilson’s cycle, does both the humor and depth of the play full justice.

The scenery is a modest brick house in a poor urban neighborhood that is lit from within. The kitchen, visible through its screen door, glows with warmth. On the porch are an icebox and porch swing, and in the backyard, the scene of confrontations and reunions, is a sawhorse, posts for fencing that gradually goes up in the course of the play, and against the lone tree, a baseball bat.

The fencing of course evokes boundaries that can both protect and confine a person. More suggestive is the bat, Troy’s tool to a better life, which later becomes his weapon against his son, as well as his old adversary, “Mr. Death.”

Now a middle-aged man working as a garbage collector, Troy had been a star in the Negro baseball circuit at a time when segregation shut him out of the Major Leagues.

Built like a linebacker, Beasley powerfully conveys Troy’s complex mix of tenderness, humor, bitterness, pride, tyrannical rage and devotion. Troy has music in him, as well as old pain.

In prison, Troy learned to play baseball and met his friend Bono, a role performed with gentle strength by Eugene Lee.

The play opens with Troy and Bono, also a garbage collector, enjoying their Friday night routine in Troy’s backyard — trading swigs from a pint as they exchange jokes, old tales and plain talk.