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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Fences’ Is Star Quality, Star or Not : Drama: The San Diego premiere of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner does justice to this major vehicle.

James Earl Jones took such larger-than-life steps on Broadway and in Los Angeles as Troy Maxson, the baseball player-turned-frustrated trash collector in August Wilson’s “Fences,” that anyone who saw him might well wonder whether any other actor could fill Maxson’s shoes.

Not to worry.

A San Diego premiere of “Fences” by Southeast Community Theatre at the Lyceum Space proves that this work does not need a star to remain a major vehicle.

It won a Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award not because of the immensely talented Jones--who was indeed dazzling--but because “Fences” is a terrific piece of work.

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Under the direction of Floyd Gaffney, the UC San Diego professor responsible for nearly every locally cast African American production in San Diego, a strong ensemble cast takes turns aiming at Wilson’s rich text, and knocks the ball over the fence more than once.

Part of what makes Wilson’s work so compelling is that he uses fiction to tell the truth. Through Maxson, the play tells the story of the pain of one-time black ballplayers who never got the chance at major league baseball before 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line.

But it’s not just historical truth that Wilson is interested in, it’s emotional truth. His Maxson is no hero; he’s charming, funny and a great spinner of tall tales, but he is also a frustrated man who takes his frustrations out on his family. And one can understand why.

Antonio (T. J.) Johnson puts depth beneath the swagger in the role of Maxson, a man who was thrown out of his father’s house when he was 14. He ends up making his way in the world as best he can, marrying young, fathering a child, stealing--and doing 15 years in prison for one of those robberies.

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He was sent to prison as a teen-ager, where he discovers he has a love and talent for baseball. But like the real-life black baseball slugger Josh Gibson, who may have been the model for the role, he is too old for the game by the time Robinson integrated the league in 1947. Gibson died in 1948.

As the play begins in 1957, we find Maxson living out the rest of his life on the bench. Now 53, he keeps keeps going, but not without dying a little inside every day.

He’s collecting other people’s trash in Pittsburgh after starting a second life. He is making a home with his wife of 18 years; his second son; his brother, Gabriel, who had part of his mind blown away in World War II, and a friend, Jim Bono.

Is he angry? Sure. Does he support his second son, Cory, also a natural athlete, when he is recruited to play college football? Not a chance. Does his love for his wife help him resist the temptation of other women? Not quite.

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Maxson is a flawed human being, and yet Wilson’s genius lies in making you care for the aches of this very complex and sometimes brutish man.

He does this partly through Maxson’s wife, Rose, eloquently played by Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson. Rose is the moral center through which we judge Maxson. Her anger is our anger, her pain at what he’s done is our pain, and ultimately her love and forgiveness is the signal that it is time for us all to suspend judgment for a while.

But whatever Maxson did or didn’t manage to accomplish with his life, attention must be paid.

Attention is also paid to the technical details in this tenderly mounted production.

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The set, by Ocie Robinson, is a wonderfully realistic depiction of a poor brick house, in front of which the ever-present bat and the ball suspended by a string speak volumes about where Maxson’s heart still remains. David Coons’ lighting captures the changing times of day. The costumes by Marian Laubert re-create the flavor of the period. The sound by Dirk Mahabir fills the mood with mournful to high-stepping strains.

The roles of the sons prove most tentative here; it’s as if the actors, like the sons themselves, have not quite settled on the best way to relate to this troublesome and troubling father.

Shanga K. Parker brings strength and almost too much intelligence to Cory, the second son who locks horns with his father. The conflict would have come across more clearly had he been more pronouncedly like his father, and like his father, had less of a handle on what emotions were driving his life.

Grandison M. Phelps III also stumbles a bit as the first-born son, Lyons; one expects him to be a bit more of a hip, street-smart talker, but his anxious desire for his father’s attention does come across loud and clear.

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Damon Bryant provides backbone to the story as Maxson’s best friend Jim Bono, who is looking to Maxson--of all people--for clues as to how to get through his own life as best he can. Joel Brisker brings a touch of the bright-eyed supernatural to the part of Gabriel, a crazy who may just have more of a pipeline to heaven than the others realize.

This production is an extraordinary play that should put another feather in the cap of Southeast Community Theatre, which continues to play a unique and vital role in producing the masterpieces of African American theater in San Diego.

“FENCES”

By August Wilson. Director is Floyd Gaffney. Sets by Ocie Robinson. Lighting by David Coons. Costumes by Marian Laubert. Sound by Dirk Mahabir. Stage manager is Kati Sipp. With Antonio (T. J.) Johnson, Damon Bryant, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Grandison Phelps III, Joel Brisker, Shanga K. Parker and Tiesha Capri Lark. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through May 20. Tickets are $12, with senior, military and student discounts available. At 79 Horton Plaza. (619) 235-8025.

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