Theater note: Full of baseball metaphors, “Fences” slides into home

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I asked my friend Barbara to help me review Fences, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama by August Wilson. The newspaper ad grabbed my attention: it shows just a baseball and one line. “The heartbreaking story of a man and his last chance at bat.” I was anticipating a feel-good story about a young man realizing his dream of being able to play baseball professionally. As you can tell, I tend to wear rose-colored glasses.

Fences, a play written by August Wilson and directed by Lou Bellamy. Presented through September 21 at the Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul. For tickets ($38) and information, see penumbratheatre.org.


I invited Barbara along because she loves live theater and this sounded like fun. Her exposure to baseball really has been limited to the Twins games that I have invited her to over the years and giving her New Yorker brother a hard time when I tell Barbara that the Twins beat the Yankees. I don’t think either one of us knew anything about August Wilson and his series of plays, the Twentieth Century Cycle, being showcased at the Penumbra Theatre. These works explore the heritage and experience of African-Americans, decade-by-decade, through the century. I certainly did not see the type of story I anticipated, but I don’t think either one of us was disappointed.

Fences is advertised as a story of baseball in 1957. In 1957, as a young girl growing up in New Ulm, baseball was a large part of my life. When Sunday came, we would either be attending an amateur baseball game in a small town (picture the cornfield and the ball diamond in Field of Dreams) or we would be visiting friends and playing baseball. As I discovered at the Penumbra, though, in 1957 there was another world of baseball in America—a world I never experienced.

Fences is the story of Troy Maxim, powerfully portrayed by James Williams. Troy claims that he was a better ball player than most others, but because baseball was a white man’s game he never got the chance to play in the major leagues. How much of this is true is left up to the audience to determine as Troy’s life story is revealed. Whatever the exact circumstances, it becomes clear that Troy had hopes that were not realized. Years have passed, and Troy’s son is now being given a chance to follow his dream. This is the story of how Troy’s bitterness and mistrust cause him to stand in the way of his son’s opportunity.

I would not call this a baseball story; however, it is filled with baseball metaphors. During a pivotal scene, Troy tells his wife Rose, “I have been standing on first base for 18 years, and I just wanted to steal second.” This is a story of the struggles of an African-American family in 1957, but many of the family’s struggles and relationships are timeless and cross all boundaries. I was not ready for the intensity of the emotions in this play—emotions magnified by the intimate feel of the Penumbra Theatre.

Jean Gabler is program manager for undergraduate business programs at the University of St. Thomas. She is the mother of Daily Planet arts editor Jay Gabler.