Over the course of a quarter-century, playwright August Wilson created 10 dramas named, collectively, The Pittsburgh Cycle. Each play is set in that city during a different decade of the 20th century; they all give voice to successive generations of African-Americans who profit from, reflect on or abjure their predecessors'ê struggles. This month the Seattle Repertory Theatre has revived Fences — last staged there a quarter-century ago — which won Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize in 1987.
Wilson'ês sweeping historical narrative might have become, in a different age, a broadly familiar myth of American culture and — like Shakespeare'ês chronicle plays — a familiar mask for history. His choice to write for the theater, an increasingly marginalized medium with a mostly white and upper-middle-class audience, may dilute the ultimate impact of his talent.
But his plays are worth seeing. This new production of Fences allows us to compare Wilson'ês socio-politics with other locally staged works in the same vein, from the wintry Depression of Paradise Lost now at Intiman to the Prague Spring of Rock'ên'êRoll last year at ACT.
After the breakup of his second marriage in 1990, Wilson moved to Seattle; here he developed an artistic connection with the Seattle Rep, which has produced all of his plays. It'ês curious that this playwright who built a career on bearing witness to the African-American experience chose a young city with a small black population, instead of Chicago or his native Pittsburgh. But from his move to St. Paul in the late '70s until his death in 2005 Wilson, like our current president, succeeded in part by deftly navigating the shoal waters of ethnicity in America — at once claiming his black identity and working amongst privileged whites newly enamored of racial reconciliation.
Standing ovations for the Rep'ês new Fences arise chiefly, I suspect, from the audience'ês continuing desire to manifest their cultural broad-mindedness; the production, however, is solid. Costumes from white gloves to red waders are by Constanza Romero, Wilson'ês widow. William Bloodgood'ês set has the crispness and perspective of a Hopper painting. Direction is by Timothy Bond, now leading Syracuse Stage, who served as artistic director of Seattle'ês late lamented Group Theatre in the '90s and spent many years in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Bond has assembled a competent cast who generate energy throughout the evening. I had hoped to see the outstanding Cynthia Jones in the part of Rose, but Kim Staunton turns in a solid performance. Craig Alan Edwards as war-damaged Gabriel has a difficult role, but the show would be stronger if he played it for pity instead of for laughs.
An inevitable short rehearsal period and the urge to keep up the pace cause several emotional misfires: When the curtain is pulled back on betrayal or death, the actors need to pause or otherwise show us how they have been struck, instead of hurrying onward. But the cast and crew do credit to the play, and soundly tell their tale of fathers and sons bent by the forces outside their fence.
If you go: Fences, Wednesdays-Sundays through April 18, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, 206-443-2222. Tickets cost $15-$59 and are available at the box office or online.