I walked out of Fences, which ends its extended run at the Performance Network on May 31, in the daze you got only from first-rate theater. Only one other performance at the Network has so profoundly affected me: a production, several years ago, of Copenhagen.
The plays are very different: Fences, by August Wilson, deals with a black family dominated by a troubled husband, father, and might-have-been major league ballplayer. Copenhagen, by Peter Frayn, imagines what might have transpired duirng an actual meeting of two great physicists during World War II: Werner Heisenberg, who worked for the Nazi government and the half-Jewish Niels Bohr. Both plays arrived in Ann Arbor by way of Broadway and international acclaim.
But my reaction to Fences made me question the Network’s choice of dramas.
In several years as a Network goer, I’ve enjoyed most of the performances (though one left me so cold I didn’t return after the intermission. Sorry, I can’t remember the name). The Network’s yearly menu is heavy on plays by unknown playwrights, especially from the state of Michigan. Playwriting is extremely competitive, and so the Network is doing a great favor to struggling-to-be-seen talent.
The question is: is the Network doing a great favor to us, its audience?
The plays by obscure writers I’ve seen range from mediocre to good. It’s not my intention to demean any of the hardworking unknown writers by singling them out either for criticism or mild praise. I’ve been touched by plays that I will doubt will ever be seen outside Michigan. But being touched is not the same thing as being carried away with an artistic experience I will always remember – which is what happened to me at Fences. (The Detroit Free Press wrote that it qualifies as “one of a handful” of plays written in the last 30 years “worth calling an American classic.”)
Fences, like Copenhagen, had terrific acting. But so do most of the Network plays I’ve seen. There’s an abundance of acting talent in our area, and when the Network plays are weak, it’s usually not because of an individual performer. It’s because – I’m trying to say this nicely – the dramas weren’t that special to begin with.
I had an argument with a friend once, a Thackery lover, about how the writer of 19th century potboilers compared with Dickens. Another friend had the last word: “The difference is the difference between talent and genius.”
I’m not declaring Wilson and Freyn geniuses. Time will decide that. But the Network touts its reputation as the city’s only “professional” theater. Should it focus less on giving the unknowns – who will likely remain unknown – a chance and more on offering its audience the emotional richness that comes only from first-class dramatists? I’m just asking. So should the Network.