Information, reviews, and miscellaneous shorts focusing on professional, nonprofit theater—from a Southeast Minnesota perspective.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Penumbra staging August Wilson’s Fences


With much of the Twin Cities buzz on the Guthrie’s production of Little House on the Prairie, not to mention a certain St. Paul convention group coming to town, Penumbra’s production of Fences could easily slip by unnoticed. But for this season, Fences tops my list of must-see Twin Cities theater.

Fences, Wilson’s second major play, followed closely on the heels of his ground breaking Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It was first staged in 1985 at the Yale Repertory Theater with James Earl Jones playing Troy Maxon, and it moved to Broadway in 1987. It won the Pulitzer for Drama in 1987.

The play would also become the second play in Wilson’s ambitions 10-play cycle which chronicles the the lives of African Americans in the 20th Century. Each of the 10 plays is set in a different decade of the Century with Fences representing the 50s. Wilson wouldn’t realize that he was writing the cycle until his next play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, yet some of the themes and motifs that would characterize the later plays are already present in Fences. For example, Fences introduces a mentally disabled man to stand as a flawed truth teller, chorus, and priest. Troy’s brother Gabriel, living with the consequence of his WWII head injury, is the first of many flawed and sometimes crazy griots that find their way into Wilson’s cycle demanding accountability to a shared community and history.

But what makes Fences so remarkable is the powerful central character of Troy Maxon and his damaged relationship with his son. Troy is both larger than life, serving the role that Arthur Miller might call a modern day tragic hero—highly respected by his friends and family—and heartbreakingly human in his failings.


Penumbra Theatre, which has previously staged all 10 of Wilson’s major plays, is in the second year of a commitment to produce Wilson’s cycle over 5 seasons. Wilson lived in St. Paul and was a company member of Penumbra during the time Fences was written and continued an artistic connection to Penumbra until his death in 2005 at 60. Theater patrons in the upper Midwest are beneficiaries of this unique relationship between company and playwright.

Penumbra Theatre
Directed by Lou Bellamy
August 21 through September 21
Visit the Penumbra for schedules and tickets: Penumbra Theatre

Twin Cities Reviews of Fences:

Star Tribune’s Rohan Preston: Fences is intimate, powerful
Pioneer Press’ Dominic P. Papatola: Penumbra knocks one out of the park with Fences
City Pages, Quinton Skinner: Home Run

Twin Cities review of Little House on the Prairie

Pioneer Press reviewer Dominic P. Paptola took Little House to task in Earnest ‘Little House’ can’t overcome its many shortcomings.
Star Tribune reviewer Graydon Royce was a bit kinder in his A purple-sky, golden-wheat ode to frontier America.

Little House on the Prairie
Guthrie Theatre
Directed by Francesca Zambello
July 26 - October 19
Visit the Guthrie for schedules and tickets: Guthrie Theatre

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