It always drives me a little crazy to hear August Wilson described as a "chronicler of the African-American experience." Even when the Seattle Repertory Theatre—a great cultivator of Wilson's work, and probably the only theater in the world that has staged all 10 of his plays, plus his solo show How I Learned What I Learned—does it. They do it in the program. They do it on their website. A few fresh-faced young Rep "educators" did it during their preshow talk in the Rep's lobby last Saturday. And it smarted every time.

Wilson was, of course, a chronicler of the African-American experience, but this description is so reductive—it's using a magnifying glass to observe an elephant. (Would you describe Tennessee Williams as a "chronicler of the Southern-American experience" or Shakespeare as a "chronicler of the Elizabethan experience"?) Hopefully, the Rep's current production of Wilson's Fences, one of the greatest family dramas in the history of anglophone theater—it's a big claim and I'm sticking to it—will trade in that pinched suit for one that properly fits the man's stature.

The small-minded among you might like a spoiler alert or two about now, so this is fair warning. But the beauty of Fences is not in the intricacies of its plot, but in the deep hum of its tragedy, the polyphony of its cutting black/Southern humor, and the emotional honesty that refuses to let anyone be a hero or a villain—it's an American Oresteia in a Pittsburgh backyard, but richer and more nuanced. Revealing how the story ends won't even begin to subtract from the grandeur of its telling. There's your spoiler alert.

Troy Maxson is a thorny man. He ran away from home as a kid when his father tried to rape his girlfriend. He fathered a child, worked as a thief, went to prison, became a legend in baseball's Negro leagues, couldn't break the pro-sports color barrier, and wound up an embittered garbage collector. He's tried to bury that bitterness in a new life (a new wife, a new son, a little home in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a Friday-afternoon ritual of drinking gin on the back porch with his man Bono, telling tall tales and playfully fussing with his wife and musician-son who turns up on paydays looking for loans), but the hardness of his life has made him a fundamentally hard man.

Despite Troy's best efforts, his bile leaks out and makes his whole family sick, especially his second son, who has a shot at a college football scholarship. Troy—who has the classic control issues of a man whose fate has been largely, and unfairly, determined by others—hunts down every excuse to thwart his son. And there's his lunatic brother Gabriel, suffering from a WWII head injury. And the Other Woman. And the way the play's final seconds are a heartbreaking benediction for all the men and women hardened by coming of age during Jim Crow and the Great Depression.

But everything about this Fences is more interesting than its plot summary, from the strong, deeply intelligent, profoundly humane direction by Timothy Bond (the former associate artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) to the costume design by Constanza Romero (Wilson's widow).

Longtime Seattle actor William Hall Jr. couldn't be wryer or funnier as Troy's best friend Bono (he nearly steals the first act with the single lift of a single eyebrow). Kim Staunton is a naturalistic, understated knockout as Troy's wife, Rose, and James A. Williams as Troy gives a lion-sized performance—though he could've taken the character a little bit further by bellowing a little bit less. But that's just quibbling for the sake of hitting at least one critical note in this review. It cannot be denied: Fences sings a deep song.

A more minor family drama, Paradise Lost by Clifford Odets, is playing right next door at Intiman. A massive flop in its day, Paradise Lost watches a Jewish-American family tip into the maw of the Depression. From 1933 to around 1936 in the living room of the Gordon family, we watch fortunes lost, romances broken by joblessness and poverty, and vagabond saints (a boiler mechanic, a wise hobo—forerunners to the holy American fools of Kerouac novels) give long disquisitions on the coming revolution and the dignity of man.

The cast is refreshingly enormous—14 actors playing dozens of parts—and, under Dámaso Rodriguez's direction, they bring a cavalcade of 1933 characters to vivid life: Tim Gouran as a conniving cabbie who rises to power as a local drug dealer, Bradley Goodwill as Mr. Gordon's wheeler-dealer business partner and upstairs neighbor, and Herschel Sparber as a giant of a boiler mechanic. (Really, the man is a mountain straight out of Steinbeck: Just watching him lumber around onstage in his dungaree overalls is amazing.) Lori Larsen brings both honey and grit to the role of long-suffering Mrs. Gordon, and even a series of inconsequential bit parts, played by Seattle favorite Brandon Whitehead, lights up the stage.

But the production has two major blots: Michael Mantell, as Mr. Gordon, doesn't feel like a humble man living in the midst of large problems (as the character was written) so much as a hollow man whose passions for social justice and moral integrity don't hide under a meek disposition... they just don't exist. By the time his final soliloquy comes around (also about the coming revolution and the dignity of man—Odets loved his eleven o'clock speechifying), it's hard to believe the old boy has it in him. The other problem is Odets's literary ambition: Paradise Lost is like a very competent, mildly mothballed period piece. While Fences vaults from a backyard toward the cosmos, Paradise Lost never leaves the living room. recommended