In classical tragedy a hero’s downfall is usually triggered by a grievous character flaw — pride, say, or greed.
In similar fashion, August Wilson’s “Fences” finds tragedy in the personality defects of its central character, former Negro Leagues baseball player Troy Maxson.
But that’s only half the story. As a black man in mid-20th century America, Troy has developed attitudes and behavior that have been sharpened by a lifetime of cultural and economic emasculation. It has left him with a slow-burning rage that too often is turned against those he loves.
Troy is one of the monumental characters in American theater, a role perfectly balanced between subtlety and grandiosity.
And in AC Smith, Kansas City Repertory Theatre has an ideal Troy, a figure both monumental and monstrous.
For starters, Smith looks like a former athlete who has put on the pounds but still revels in his own physicality. He carries with him an undercurrent of violence.
Not that he can’t be charming. In the opening scene Smith’s Troy is enjoying the end of the work week (he’s a trash collector) with a pint of gin in the backyard of his Pittsburgh home.
In these circumstances he’s a raconteur, an entertaining blowhard. Yes, he grouses that white guys get to drive the trash trucks while blacks do all the lifting. But Troy is loud and funny and even willing to make fun of himself. A bit, anyway.
But as Wilson’s play progresses over five scenes covering approximately one year, the angers and resentments percolating inside Troy (he was too old to join the Majors after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier) keep bursting forth.
This is a complex depiction of a contradictory character. By play’s end we can view Troy with varying degrees of admiration and abhorrence. We’re caught between mourning his fate and relief that he can do no more harm.
But then, all of the play’s characters have remarkable depth, thanks to a superb supporting cast and the deft direction of Ron OJ Parson.
For starters there’s Troy’s wife, Rose (Greta Oglesby), the dutiful spouse who loves her man despite his faults. Rose has learned how to tiptoe around his moods and alpha male outbursts.
Late in the play, though, Oglesby’s Rose discovers her husband’s infidelity and erupts in a display of pain and outrage so sharp and precise it’s a wonder all the women in attendance didn’t bring the production to a stop with a standing ovation.
There’s more great acting on hand. Stealing his every scene is Walter Coppage as Troy’s brother Gabriel, who lost a chunk of his brains to a Japanese bullet and now wanders the streets toting a battered trumpet with which he plans to blow open the Pearly Gates. It’s a role more literary than literal, but in Coppage’s hands Gabriel’s gentle innocence gives the play a pure moral center.
Troy has two sons who could hardly be more different. The older, Lyons (Chester Gregory), the product of Troy’s first marriage, is an aspiring musician whose aversion to common labor infuriates his father, especially since Lyons regularly shows up to borrow money. Lyons has learned to handle his volatile dad by adopting an attitude of casual indifference.
That sort of distance is denied 17-year-old Cory (Rufus Burns), who must live in his father’s house and abide by his strict rules. A talented football player, Cory has a shot at a college scholarship. But that dream is crushed when Troy refuses to sign the necessary paperwork, claiming that it’s all part of the white man’s nefarious system. (He may just resent the fact that his child will succeed where he failed.) Watching Cory slide from adolescent energy to a disappointed maturity is a tragedy unto itself.
Rounding out this extended family circle is Bono (Alfred H. Wilson), Troy’s co-worker and best friend (they met in prison), whose quiet decency serves as a counterweight to Troy’s volatility. Bono is in many ways Troy’s conscience.
All this unfolds on Jack Magaw’s astoundingly detailed set, a reproduction of a 1950s backyard in Pittsburgh’s African-American Hill District; Marc Stubblefield’s superb lighting design perfectly evokes the different times of day called for by the script.
Do not think for a moment that “Fences” is some sort of racial polemic. While the injustices of Troy’s life are certainly a factor in his behavior, Wilson’s writing and this production’s delivery are so deep and wide that simple explanations cannot suffice. Life is too complicated for that.
The Kansas City Repertory Theater’s “Fences” continues at Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way, through Nov. 5. See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.