By Ken Mask
There’s something about the combination of great writing and great acting that makes a night out at the theater refreshing.
Thomasi McDonald as Troy in August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony winning play Fences provided such an occasion. With a comfortable posture he’s able to bring the essence of family and human dynamics to your attention.
The literal fence and metaphoric adjustments become a superbly woven life fabric as Troy navigates his past, present and future. The uncertainty that typically comes from a poor education and the pain of a past life in prison does not sway him from his mission to take care of those around him. In the role of a garbage collector, buddy, family man and wayward husband in 1950s Pittsburgh, McDonald flows across the stage delivering Wilson’s lines with splendid vitality to an everyman set of situations.
Connie Lea, as his wife Rose, delivers good humor and humility. As the loving homemaker, you could just smell the love-infused fried chicken, biscuits and collards. Later, when she got fed up, you could feel her pain as she delivered her spit-in-your-face-18-year-marriage soliloquy - the one Viols Davis made famous in the movie. Lea went toe-to-toe in matching her intensity and anguish.
Jay Randall as Cory plays the teenage angst in solid fashion, while Benaiah Barnes was solid as Troy's grown first son.
Mia Burton is a rising star; her stage presence was animated and her memorization of the father's songs and phrases was delightful.
Gabriel, Vincent Drayton, reminds us that war often goes on well beyond the battlefield. The brain-injured brother with trumpet in hand shows August Wilson’s chops for contemporary commentary. Drayton’s Gabe is well played with uncomfortably appropriate positioning. Ajani Kambon's Bono as Troy’s best friend and coworker is on point with comedic relief and as an intermittent moral compass.
One could tell that director Jamal Farrar took full advantage of the excellent talent pool. I’m hopeful this ‘takes to the road’ and please bring Deb Royals’s well-appointed set along. I’ll drive the U-Haul just to hang with the troupe.
Thomasi McDonald is a major thespian force. Like a band leader he conducts his fellow cast members with metronome-like precision. Their timing is perfect, their pace is like a well-oiled grandfather clock up to and through the death challenge moments…all draw you in before you realize it.
[Ed. Note: The night I attended the play, the purest evidence of McDonald's mastery of the role was provided by the soto voce comments of women in the audience. Angered by the character's philandering, some women called him out of his name. The hatred toward him was palpable, When one audience member called him the 12-letter big kahuna of cusswords, I was was almost tempted to turn and tell her "You know he's just acting, right?" But I was scared.]
Wilson, the bard of our past century, was surely pleased last night from his front row seat in Heaven. The next time Pure Life puts on this production - as it invariably must - make sure you're on the front row of your local theater.