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Friday, August 17 Living

Ridgefield Theater Barn draws actors from far and wide for August Wilson drama

If you think Ridgefield is an unlikely place to see a production of August Wilson’s classic “Fences,” you would be wrong.

Pamme Jones, the executive director of the Ridgefield Theater Barn where the play is running through Feb. 24, admits the staff wondered if enough actors would show up for auditions to make a first-rate production possible.

“We did hold our breath a little bit, but the cast came together in a tremendous way,” she says of the acting company working under director Katherine Ray.

While Ridgefield doesn’t have a large pool of African-American actors, the reputation of “Fences” is such that the theater had no problem assembling a cast.

“Casting is always a challenge,” Jones says. “You’re always asking questions like ‘Can we find five sopranos to do ‘Little Women’? Will we have enough male voices for ‘Les Mis’?”

“What are you gonna do but put it out there?,” director Katherine Ray says of her passion for doing “Fences” in Ridgefield. “(Wilson) is by far my favorite playwright — so rich and musical. Every time I read it, I find something else in it.”

Jones and Ray had a hunch that good actors would be drawn to Ridgefield by the power of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of a struggling black family in 1950s Pittsburgh, and they were right.

“It was a great audition process. We could have cast Rose four or five times,” Ray says of the play’s matriarch (a role that earned Viola Davis an Oscar last year).

The current production of “Fences” is actually a delayed version of a show the theater intended to put on last summer until the actor playing the lead male part — Troy Maxon — was felled by illness just before the planned opening. Ray says the play is too important to have rushed another actor into the role last summer. Instead, the theater postponed the show and added it to the February schedule (a lucky accident that means “Fences” coincides with Black History Month). “I am so grateful they pushed it to February,” the director says.

The actors in “Fences” are from all over the state of Connecticut, including Kevin Knight, of Norwalk, who happily drove to rehearsals in Ridgefield after his day job as a marketing consultant, in order to work on the role of Troy’s best friend, Bono.

“This is a play I’ve loved for a long time,” he says, adding that he saw the original 1987 Broadway production, starring James Earl Jones, and the 2010 revival with Denzel Washington.

Near the end of rehearsals, Knight tells me the experience has altered his attitude toward theater. “I don’t want to do comedies anymore. I want to do more serious things. A play like this changes you, deepens your relationship with your work,” he says.

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The actor has always appreciated the Ridgefield venue’s willingness to cast black performers in parts that originally might have been written as white, so he was thrilled when he heard they were tackling August Wilson. Although the late writer devoted his life to plays about black people in Pittsburgh — “Fences” is part of Wilson’s “century cycle” in which he wrote one play for each decade of the 20th century — the director says one of the secrets of the man’s great success is the universal qualities in his stories.

“I think Troy Maxon’s struggles are everybody’s struggles,” Ray says of the character’s attempt to hold his family together and convince his son to abandon the idea of playing college football. “I see a lot of my father in him.”

Although Ray believes it will be many years before someone would attempt to do a “nontraditional” production of “Fences,” with white actors in the parts, she thinks it could be done with only a few changes.

“I have to admit that I was a little selfish as a director when an actor was out and I got to play Troy,” she says. “To do that was such a treat.”

“Fences” is running through Saturday, Feb. 24, at the Ridgefield Theater Barn, 37 Halpin Lane. Performances are at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets $35-$28. 203-431-9850, ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview

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