/  Friday, May 5, 2017

On some levels, Venice Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s “Fences” is a crowning achievement for the Stage II series for the way the cast conveys most of the rhythms, poetry and power in the story about a former Negro Leagues baseball player with an ax to grind. At the same time, the actors also struggle to fully connect with their characters in this demanding play.

Kristofer Geddie’s production is better than you might expect for a community theater and makes you want to encourage the company to further expand ongoing efforts to diversify its programming, audiences and the acting pool through efforts like this.

Set in the 1950s in the backyard of the Pittsburgh home of sanitation worker Troy Maxson, the play is a drama with a natural sense of humor that emerges between friends and family members who know each other well. The cast quickly draws us into their situations, conflicts and struggles.

So, perhaps, it was opening night jitters on Thursday that led to the hesitancy in the delivery of some of the lines among all the cast members, diminishing their ability to fully make the audience believe we are watching real people rather than actors playing characters. But when the cast is in on target, particularly during the most emotional confrontations, the images are compelling.

Phillip Cherry has a natural sense of strength and command as Troy, a man whose dreams of a professional baseball career were dashed by time spent in jail. He arrived ready for the pros too early, before the color barrier was broken, and he wasn’t going to be the one to break it. So Troy still feels burned by the sports world and takes out his frustrations on his teenage son, Cory, who hopes to get a football scholarship to college.

Cherry and Edwin Watson as his easy-going best friend and colleague Jim Bono, have a wonderful way of bantering over their weekly pint of gin. And Cherry has a flirtatious rapport with Phyllis Banks as his supportive and grounded wife, Rose, who reveals more strength as the play progresses. It’s often difficult to hear Banks in her more gentle moments of conversation about mundane, everyday things; her soft speaking voice is sometimes overwhelmed by background noises meant to provide the sounds of the neighborhood. But when the fire is lit and she needs to express her anger at Troy’s actions, she unleashes with a powerful fury.

Carroll Hunter has some impact as Troy’s mentally disabled brother, Gabriel, who wanders the streets selling fruits and vegetables and imagining fights with the devil, who has a major presence in the play. Willie Marte could use a bit more confident swagger as Lyons, Troy’s older son from a previous marriage, who serves as a warning of what happens when there’s too great a distance between father and son.