Family, particularly fathers and sons. Can there be a more inexhaustible topic for great playwrights?
From Shakespeare (think all those “Henry” history plays) to Arthur Miller (consider “All My Sons” and “Death of a Salesman”), the subject has been potent dramatic fodder. And in “Fences,” August Wilson made his own unmistakable, powerful contribution to the genre in what is perhaps his most personal play.
First seen in New York in 1987 with James Earl Jones, “Fences” has now returned with an equally starry actor, Denzel Washington in the lead. Washington, last on Broadway in 2005 with a production of “Julius Caesar,” acquits himself well in this blistering revival, directed with a sure, steady hand by Wilson veteran Kenny Leon. It’s a big, bold performance in a big, bold play, rife with emotion-drenched soliloquies for its star about life, love, death and the devil.
The production opened Monday at Broadway’s Cort Theatre for limited engagement through July 11.
Washington portrays Troy Maxson, a 53-year old black sanitation worker who once had dreams of professional baseball glory. The time is the late 1950s, when black baseball players were beginning to make names for themselves in the major white leagues. Troy came along too soon, and his aspirations died hard but his anger never cooled.
Instead, he channeled his life into his family: wife Rosa (Viola Davis) and teenage son (Chris Chalk). The key word here is responsibility, a word Troy reverse above all else. That responsibility runs headlong into his son’s desire to play football and win a possible college scholarship.
A clash is inevitable, and the tension builds slowly as Troy reveals details about his past life- his volatile dealings with his own father, his time in prison (a stint that cost him his first wife) and the chance to be around his oldest son (Russell Hornsby).
But the most moving part of “Fences” deals with Troy’s complex relationship with his wife. The two have a natural, easy rapport, often sparked by Troy’s sexual banter. And his bluster is soothed by Rose’s deceptively calm demeanor.
Davis gives an incandescent performance as Rosa, a wife who has sacrificed all for her family. Husband and child anchor her. And when that bond is broken, Rosa makes some surprising choices, decisions that Davis conveys with devastating truthfulness.
The play’s one problematic, obvious character is Gabriel, Troy’s brain-damaged brother, whose otherworldly insight courses throughout “Fences.” Spiritually clairvoyant characters are staples of Wilson’s plays, and, Gabriel, complete with trumpet and played with childlike simplicity by Mykelti Williamson, is no exception.
And there is some major truth-telling by other supporting characters as well.
“Some people build fences to keep people out … and other people build fences to keep people in,” says Troy’s good pal, Bono, portrayed by the indispensable Stephen McKinley Henderson, another Wilson pro.
In its previous New York incarnation, “Fences,” was one of Wilson’s 10 decade-by-decade works chronicling the black experience in 20th century America, proved to be his most commercially successful Broadway production. You can see why in this revival. The people he created are so gloriously, recognizably human.
Denzel Washington is the draw for this revival of August Wilson's "Fences." But it's the play itself that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats: This is pure, unabashed melodrama -- the kind where the line "Got something to tell you" never introduces good news.
The 1987 play, which won both the Pulitzer and Tony, may not be Wilson's most sophisticated effort -- brace yourself for multiple baseball analogies -- but it's one of his most emotionally effective. And it feels good to be taken for a ride by such a storyteller, especially when the ride is as delicately staged, as gorgeously acted as it is here.
That Washington brings gravitas to the central character of Troy Maxson isn't surprising: A deep-rooted, weighty dignity is the actor's stock in trade. And in the first act, Troy is exactly what we expect from Denzel.
Troy is a solid family man in 1957 Pittsburgh. After 18 years, he remains in lust with his wife, Rose (Viola Davis, from "Doubt"). Their teenage son, Cory (Chris Chalk), dutifully does his household chores. Troy endures his job as a sanitation worker, but at least he's about to become the first black man to go from picking up garbage to driving the truck.
Things haven't always been easy. A stint in jail prevented Troy from raising Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his now-grown son. And while Troy was a fine baseball player, racism confined him to the Negro Leagues. Still, he seems at peace with his life now.
And yet there are fault lines. Troy is put off by Cory's dreams of a football scholarship, and often seeks refuge in tall tales and nostalgia -- which only exacerbates his simmering frustration.
After a first act mostly devoted to exposition, the play takes off and delivers several pathos-laden twists. It's as if Wilson had engaged the turbo on his dramatic engine.
Thankfully, director Kenny Leon and his incredible cast keep a light touch as things get heavy. Branford Marsalis' evocative music adds to the mood without drawing undue attention to itself. The contrast between the somewhat hackneyed developments and the subtlety with which they're handled makes for deeply affecting theater.
This is also where Washington truly shows his worth as an actor, melding into the ensemble and letting his co-stars gain traction. Davis, in particular, transcends the clichéd part of the resilient wife who's the household's real backbone. Look at Rose's face when
Troy gives her shattering news: It literally crumples down in pain.
In the end, the cast's selflessness, dedication and honesty are the best tribute possible to Wilson's play -- which, after all, is about a family.
When Denzel Washington talks about challenging death to a wrestling match, you suddenly sense that everything’s going to be all right. Not for Troy Maxson, the character portrayed by Mr. Washington in the vibrantly acted Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” which opened on Monday night at the Cort Theater; Troy might as well have “Warning: Explosives” tattooed across his forehead, with “Breakable” stamped on his back.
But all at once you feel that Mr. Washington is going to take Troy Maxson into dark and uncharted places, which is what he has to do for this mid-80’s play to register as more than a conventional domestic melodrama. Delivering that poetic riff, early in the first act, about going mano a mano with the grim reaper, Mr. Washington’s Troy morphs from the salty, genial everyman he’s thus far appeared to be into a much more arresting figure.
There’s an exhilarated craziness in his eyes and a confrontational glint that dares us not to believe him. On the subject of his own life, Troy — a former Negro League baseball star turned sanitation worker, and a man whose name aptly evokes a legendary, ruined splendor — is a first-class mythmaker. Which means he’s also a first-class storyteller and a first-class self-deceiver, and that we’re going to hang on to his words.
Mr. Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, has his own personal specter to wrestle with in this production, directed by Kenny Leon and featuring a magnificent performance by Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Rose. By starring in the first Broadway revival of “Fences,” which picked up about every major prize on offer in 1987, when it arrived on Broadway,
Mr. Washington is stepping into the outsize shadow of James Earl Jones.
Large of frame and thunderous of voice, Mr. Jones has a titan’s presence that invested the embittered Troy with an aura of classical tragedy. He was big in every sense of the word, and there was instant pathos in the spectacle of a giant confined by the smallness of a world hedged in by 1950s racism. Mr. Washington has the fluid naturalness we associate with good screen actors, and when he played Brutus in the 2005 Broadway production of “Julius Caesar,” he often seemed to fade into the crowd of milling revolutionary Romans.
His Troy, not unexpectedly, is smaller than Mr. Jones’s was, but that also means it is on a more human scale and in some ways more intricately drawn. Mr. Washington has to work hard to build his Troy, brick by brick instead of with one overwhelming first impression.
But any strain we sense comes not from the actor but the character.
A family man with a roving eye and a solid breadwinner with unsettling memories of a sports hero’s past, Troy is twisted by fiercely contradictory impulses — of love and resentment, gentle judiciousness and brutal irrationality, responsibility and a lust for careless freedom. Registering troubled ambivalence has always been Mr. Washington’s great strength as a screen actor (including in his Oscar-winning “Training Day”), and he uses that gift to redefine Troy on his own terms.
This newly detailed reading allows us to look at Troy with fresh objectivity, and to realize that Wilson created a more complex, layered character than we may have remembered. And in his depiction of Troy and Rose’s marriage, Wilson, who died in 2005, delivered his finest and most credible portrait of a relationship between a man and a woman, brought to complete, aching life by Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis. But without the distraction of Mr. Jones’s Shakespearean grandeur, the play’s flaws, as well as its strengths, are more clearly visible.
“Fences” is part of Wilson’s great decade-by-decade cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century, largely set (as “Fences” is) in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. It shares with more adventurous works like “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Seven Guitars” a specific sense of the history that brought its characters to their point in time. That includes handed-down recollections of slavery and more immediate memories of the northward migration from cotton country.
These elements are more in the background in “Fences,” and Wilson’s use of the soaring, aria-like monologue is more restrained. This is both his most accessible and least inventive work, seemingly shaped by dramaturgical blueprints from the era in which “Fences” is set. As a study in the Oedipal conflict between Troy and his teenage son, Cory (Chris Chalk), who is teetering defensively on the cusp of adulthood, “Fences” has tinny echoes of Arthur Miller and William Inge. Nor can Mr. Leon’s expertly fluid direction quite disguise the artificial overuse of some fairly tired symbolic motifs, including baseball and the fences of the title.
But there are scenes as vivid and heartfelt as any on Broadway now. Moving within Santo Loquasto’s exactly visualized urban backyard and Constanza Romero’s pitch-perfect period costumes, the ensemble members remind us of the rich pleasures of good, old naturalistic acting. More than most of Wilson’s plays, “Fences” allows its performers to develop sustained one-on-one relationships.
There’s particular pleasure (and sadness) to be had in following the waning friendship between Troy and his longtime pal, Jim Bono (the Wilson veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson, at the top of his form). Mr. Washington’s face and stance alone provide fascinating (and damning) glimpses into Troy’s attitudes toward his son from an earlier relationship, the 34-year-old Lyons (the excellent Russell Hornsby), and the desperate-to-please Cory (an underwritten part). And while I’ve pretty much had my fill of Wilson’s deranged prophet characters, Mykelti Williamson’s Gabriel is fine as Troy’s mad brother, eliciting a stirring mix of guilt and affection from Mr. Washington.
But Troy’s interactions with Rose are what give “Fences” its moments of genuine glory. Ms. Davis, who won a Tony for her performance in Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” may well pick up another for her work here. Her face is a poignant paradox, both bone-tired and suffused with sensual radiance. Rose has resigned herself to her life in a way Troy cannot, but that doesn’t mean there’s not passionate yearning within.
What Troy rants about, Rose keeps to herself, and Ms. Davis draws extraordinary power from that reticence; you never feel that Rose is any less deep than her husband. You can sense, so palpably that it hurts, why Troy and Rose were meant to be together, and when it looked as if the marriage might be going south at the performance I attended, you could hear horrified gasps in the audience. Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis prove that lovers don’t have to be as young and star-crossed as Romeo and Juliet to generate shiver-making heat and pathos.
August Wilson's poetry has seldom sounded as prosaic as it does in the new revival of Fences (* * * out of four).
That's not entirely a criticism of this production, which opened Monday at the Cort Theatre and marks Denzel Washington's return to Broadway since a stint as Brutus inJulius Caesar in 2005.
Troy Maxson, Fences' lead character — a middle-aged ex-con and former Negro Leagues baseball champ adjusting to working-class family life, and a changing world, in the 1950s — is as richly drawn as a Shakespearean tragic hero. And the 55-year-old movie star, packing a few extra pounds, brings to the role a convincing combination of rugged physical authority and weariness. We see the weight of social transformation, and his own demons, bearing down on this man.
But Washington's Troy, while vigorous and charismatic, isn't long on nuance; and in that sense it is of a piece with the staging. Directed by Kenny Leon, an experienced and astute purveyor of Wilson's work, this Fences makes the characters' struggles briskly accessible and absorbing, but doesn't always capture their depth and resonance.
This is especially true for Troy and his long-suffering wife, Rose, played by Viola Davis. She and Washington have a lovely, playful chemistry in their early scenes; the mutual attraction and affection that has helped sustain this couple couldn't be more obvious.
Davis is less effective in showing us the toll that Troy's transgressions have taken on Rose. We see her pain when Troy confronts her with a real whopper in the second act; but her subsequent monologue — which the actress delivers, like many lines, in a hyper-naturalistic style that rushes and at times flattens the distinctive music of Wilson's language — doesn't fully convey Rose's unfussy dignity and resilience.
As Troy and Rose's son, Cory, whose own athletic ambitions complicate an already uneasy relationship with his dad, Chris Chalk can be similarly breathless, though it suits Cory's youthful zeal. Russell Hornsby plays Troy's son from a previous marriage with a sly, rueful swagger that makes him duly sympathetic, while Mykelti Williamson is poignant as Troy's brother, a brain-damaged war veteran.
The most textured performance, not surprisingly, comes from the masterful Wilson interpreter Stephen McKinley Henderson. He plays Troy's best buddy with an understated authority that can be overshadowed by the others' more flamboyant antics.
The leading man has no such problems. Though Washington may not portray Troy's spiritual quandaries as completely or hauntingly as others have, he makes his story compelling.
And he'll surely introduce that story to fans who will seek out other Wilson plays — a happy ending by any measure.