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Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

(Photo: Eric Antoniou)

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.

The play matter-of-factly blends a kind of magical realism with the gritty reality of daily life through its fidelity to the blues-inflected cadence and language of its characters. Wilson builds it into the script; and as voiced by this production’s fine actors, five of whom have performed in other Wilson plays, the rhythms of this language flow naturally from jokes, playful sparring and tall tales to urgent, life-changing confessions and raging battles.

The lighting and music add to this alchemy. A warm spotlight illuminates the delicacy in Troy’s chiseled face. When his brother Gabriel, a mentally impaired World War II veteran, proudly holds up the key to his new flat, it sparkles and his large eyes shine with pride — a hint of his oracular role to come. The blues and spirituals that accompany changes of scene, as well as the shards of old songs and folklore in the script, also evoke a timeless, sustaining force that in the moving finale takes the story into a realm beyond words.

It is as natural for Troy to tell a tall tale of wrestling with the devil for three days as it is for him to describe the mortal wound he inflicted in a robbery that landed him in prison for 13 years. Likewise, his brother Gabriel can speak of visiting St. Peter in heaven and being ordered to wake him up on judgment day. Otherwise, he tells his family, how are people going to get inside the gates of heaven? Meanwhile, here on earth, he says, his job is to chase the hellhounds “snipping at everybody’s heels.”

The down-to-earth conflict between father and son has a poetry of its own, humorous as Troy and Cory debate buying a TV versus fixing a roof, and later, clipped and hard, as they lock in a fierce battle of wills.

Gabriel, performed poignantly by Bill Nunn, is a big, lumbering man with a beat-up trumpet strapped around his neck.

Rose and Troy have raised a splendid son, Cory. Played by Warner Miller, the boy brims with energy and joy, flush with the news that a college in North Carolina is recruiting him for a football scholarship. But Troy tells Rose, “I decided 17 years ago that boy wasn’t getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports.”

The rage of Miller’s Troy matches that of his father as they fight over his future.

Brandon J. Dirden plays Troy’s first son, the 34-year-old Lyons, who was brought up by his mother. An aspiring jazz musician and dapper dresser, he endures his father’s put-downs as he comes by to borrow $10. Dirden projects the young man’s bravado and eagerness to win his father’s respect.

Rose, as performed by Crystal Fox, is a blend of loveliness and backbone, and her strength emerges all the more as the life she has made with Troy is shaken to its roots. She tells him, “I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take me no 18 years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.”

And yet, she tells her son that his father “meant to do more good than he meant to do harm.”

“Fences” runs through Oct. 11 at the Boston University Theatre Mainstage, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston. Bay State Banner readers are eligible for special ticket prices of $25 and $39 to all performances. For show times, tickets and more information, visit or call 617-266-0800.