“You’ve got to take the crookeds with the straights,” says the disillusioned protagonist of “Fences” at International City Theatre. That observation indicates the multiple conflicts running through the late, great August Wilson’s 1987 study of a former Negro League player turned garbage collector battling prejudice, regrets and mortality.
A Pulitzer- and Tony-winner, “Fences” is the sixth entry in Wilson’s landmark “Century Cycle” decalogue about the 20th century African American experience, decade by decade. Less linked to the whole by leitmotif references than other plays in the cycle, its vernacular, authenticity and humanity carry a dramatic pull that approaches Arthur Miller territory.
It’s 1957 Pittsburgh, as Troy Maxson (Michael A. Shepperd in the performance of his career to date) returns from another trash-hauling day to his modest home (well designed by Don Llewellyn). Bantering between swigs of gin with crony Jim Bono (fine-tuned Christopher Carrington), Troy’s jovial bluster conceals profound contradictions of which Bono and Rose (the superb Karole Foreman), Troy’s loving, long-suffering second wife, are all too aware.
Not so much 17-year-old Cory (effective Jermelle Simon), Troy and Rose’s son, whose desire to play college football over Troy’s intractable opposition underpins Wilson’s central sins-of-the-fathers theme, with the titular metaphor covering other bases. Curveball revelations steadily escalate to a moving denouement.
Director Gregg T. Daniel pitches toward humor early on, so the eventual fireworks land with devastating force. The physical execution is winning, notably Karyn D. Lawrence’s subtle lighting, and the cast scores a grand slam.
Shepperd is overwhelming, his nuanced, shambling physicality accompanied by hairpin turns from thunderous bombast to heart-stopping stillness. Foreman counters with an understated warmth and conviction, heart-rending in the face of Troy’s Act 2 betrayal, and Simon’s unsophisticated technique feels exactly right.
They and their colleagues -- affable Theo Perkins as Troy’s son from his first marriage, vivid Matt Orduña as Troy’s mentally challenged brother and appealing Mma-Syrai Alek as the late-inning plot twist -- field each reversal with ace teamwork. Such unified involvement distinguishes this pertinent, gripping revival of a modern classic.
“Fences,” International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 13. $46 and $48. (562) 436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.