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`Fences' probes life of blacks in '50s . James Earl Jones stars on Broadway in powerful drama by August Wilson

Fences Play by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards. Starring James Earl Jones. ``Fences,'' at the 46th Street Theatre, is a work of exceptional depth, eloquence, and power. Anchored in James Earl Jones's magnificent performance as the dominating Troy Maxson, the new August Wilson drama adds a greatly needed stature to the current Broadway season. It is a major addition to the decade-by-decade cycle of plays through which Mr. Wilson is surveying the black American experience in the 20th century and which was launched locally by the prize-winning ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.''

The new segment takes place in the shabby backyard of the Maxson house in a northern American industrial city. A gaunt, leafless tree looms above the small dwelling, whose imitation brick-shingled exterior forms the centerpiece of James D. Sandefur's set. Extending from 1957 to 1965, the play's nine scenes thus antedate and implicitly anticipate the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s.

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The past confronts an uncertain hope of things to come in the conflict between Troy and his teen-age son Cory (Courtney B. Vance). A promising high-school athlete, Cory is being scouted for a scholarship at a Southern university. Troy, an ex-baseball star embittered at having been restricted to the Negro Leagues, and suspicious of white men's overtures, refuses to give the needed parental permission. To Troy, who has served time in prison, his promotion to being the first black garbage truck driver in the sanitation department means more than Cory's dreams of glory. The father's obduracy leads to an irreconcilable standoff.

In the meantime, Wilson is filling out the details and dimensions of this black family portrait. Ebullient, hard-working, home-loving Troy supports the household. But it is Rose Maxson (Mary Alice), his firm but gentle wife, who sustains their life together. When Troy haltingly confesses a marital infidelity, Rose accepts the innocent child whose mother dies giving birth, but she informs her husband that he is now ``womanless.''

Mr. Jones's extraordinary acting range matches the heavy demands of a role that is virtually classic in its emotional compass. Troy's many moods extend from reflective musings and high good humor to bullying sarcasm and explosive rage. Jones responds equally to the mystical elements of the writing in Troy's dialogues with death. For his part, young Mr. Vance contributes indispensably to the charged excitement of the scenes between Troy and his resentful son.

As Troy's steadfast helpmeet, the incomparable Mary Alice provides the tempering presence that succeeds in modifying - if it cannot comletely curb - her husband's volatile behavior. In Miss Alice's portrayal, Rose's serenity rests on deep reserves of strength. To watch Jones and Alice in their scenes together can be a profound experience.

The splendidly composed Yale Repertory Theatre production, staged by Lloyd Richards, grasps the complex elements in which each character adds dimensionally to the portraiture. The excellent cast includes Ray Aranha as Troy's good-natured, longtime friend; Frankie R. Faison as his war-damaged brother; Charles Brown as his flippant, money-borrowing elder son (by a previous marriage); and Karima Miller as Raynell, the small child whom Rose accepts. In singing a blues song learned from their dead father, Cory and Raynell conclude this searching emotional work on a note of poignant tenderness.

Like the best of black American drama, ``Fences'' blends the unique and the universal: the unique because it explores the plight of a minority in a society not yet healed of prejudice; the universal because it is rooted in the human condition. Not surprisingly, some commentators have perceived resemblances between the father-son conflicts of ``Death of a Salesman'' and those of ``Fences.'' Such inferred comparisons don't in any way diminish the achievement of Wilson's complex, demanding, and rewarding urban folk play. The production was costumed by Candice Donnelly and lighted by Danianne Mizzy.

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