Review: Fences at STC Wharf 1

Most famously known for its 2016 film adaption starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, August Wilson’s Fences is a pivotal work of modern American playwriting, and audiences should race to buy tickets to its STC production, which reunites the chemistry-heavy duo of Bert LaBonté and Zahra Newman after their work on 2022’s A Raisin in the Sun.

Written in 1983 and set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Fences is a family drama about tortured patriarch Troy Maxson (LaBonté) and his troubled relationship with his wife Rose (Newman), and his sons Cory (Darius Williams) and Lyons (Damon Manns).

Troy, a Black American man who grew up in the segregation era, is torn between wanting the best life for his sons, and not wanting them to follow in his footsteps. A victim of childhood abuse from his father, we watch as he struggles with his personal demons when raising his sons.

As he was in Raisin, LaBonté is extraordinary here, in his depiction of the bravado and inner turmoil of a man whose life hasn’t turned out as he hoped. Newman, too, is excellent, reprising the onstage partnership with LaBonté that made Raisin so successful, although she does feel slightly too young for this role. As Troy’s teenage son who just wants his father’s approval, newcomer Williams is heartbreaking.

At nearly three hours with interval, Wilson’s script is very talky. Fences is less about plot and more about the complex relationships between Troy and his family, which are hashed out in a series of confrontations in the Maxson family backyard (designed with flare by Jeremy Allen). The first twenty minutes were slow to suck me in, but once it gets going it doesn’t let up. The second act, in particular, is a gripping 60-minutes with Director Sebbens at the helm. Wilson’s writing is soulful and monologue-heavy—this is one of those ‘Mount Everest’ roles for actors at the top of their careers, and LaBonté and Newman live up to the challenge brilliantly.

I loved the attention to detail in Jeremy Allen’s impressive suburban set, which depicted a Pittsburgh backyard in the 1950s. The commanding Elm tree which anchors the set is an impressive achievement from the STC props team. Sebbens and Allen’s decision to show Troy and Cory physically building the titular backyard fence was an effective dramatic tool in emphasising it as a central metaphor for failed ambition and missed opportunities. I also appreciated how that parallel was conveyed sonically, with Composer and Sound Designer Brendon Boney cleverly integrating the sounds of carpentry with blues in scene transitions.

Following her work on seven methods of killing kylie jenner and City of Gold, Fences validates Shari Sebbens’ place as one of the most exciting directors working in Sydney today.

Fences is a heartbreaking work about a father trying to do his best with what life has handed him, while working against the effects of intergenerational trauma and racial inequality. As a work of great playwriting about a tragic father figure, it deserves to be talked about in the same breath as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  This finely directed production by Sebbens disproves the myth that white audiences need to see themselves directly reflected on stage to identify with, and be moved by, a work. Don’t miss out on this work of incredible American playwriting, starring some of Sydney’s best actors.

Jo Bradley


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