Fences: Performances Well-Worth the Price

Score a triple for Denzel Washington and a home run for Viola Davis in the much-hyped--and expensive--production of August Wilson's most famous play.

Joan Marcus

Nothing defines August Wilson's 10-play canon more than Fences. Certainly in the public's view: Fences was--is--the late playwright's most successful play to date, raking in the most at the box office (lots) and at the awards shows. (Four Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize.) Set in segregated 1957, it perfectly encapsulated the roots of black rage, particularly black male rage, and the impotency of such fury, answering Langston Hughes' question about the destiny of dreams deferred: They both fester and explode, leaving behind fetid, toxic waste.

Not that Wilson's worldview was a bleak one. In his plays, there was hope and humor, and love, beaten down, often tortured love, but love, nonetheless. It's just that when it came to depicting the souls of black folks, Wilson liked to keep it real. You could feel the funk, smell the sweat, taste the ham hocks simmering on the stove. And in keeping it real, with Fences, Wilson created one of the great characters of American dramaturgy: Troy Maxson, a big, bitter, beautiful, black man, a supremely flawed mortal who, if it weren't for the difference in skin color, would find much in common with Willie Loman.

So now, 23 years after James Earl Jones first brought Troy Maxson to vigorous life, Denzel Washington has been charged with inhabiting all the ferocity and stalled dreams of Wilson's Pittsburgh garbage man. This is the first Broadway revival of the play, and the combination of these big names--Fences, Wilson, Denzel--has created big buzz, so much so that there's been a run at the box office. Fences, premieres today for a limited, 13-week run, but already, with a week's worth of previews, it pulled in over $700,000. Hopes are high.

And yes, for the most part, this newly reconstituted Fences is worth the price of its very steep admission. (Nearly $300 for premium seats; average paid admission is $111.)

One very good reason to see this production of Fences is to watch Viola Davis in action. Yes, Fences is a man's play, but it takes a strong woman to offset Troy's forceful tyranny--and a strong actress to offset Washington's star wattage. As Rose, Troy's long, long, long-suffering wife, Davis brings it. This is the kind of performance that wins awards: Davis, who won a Tony for her role in Wilson's King Hedley II, has an easy way with his oft-times poetic language. She's warm and loving, earthy and pragmatic, portraying a woman of her time, a time when wives squashed their desires so that their husbands could realize theirs. As Rose says, she "planted" herself in her husband. And when he betrays her, Rose's deferred dreams explode as well. Watching this explosion is, simply put, stunning. She rages; she weeps; she just is. In lesser hands, this would be prime opportunity for scenery chewing. But with Davis, we're just watching a woman destroyed. Temporarily destroyed.

Those who've seen Fences before will remember that, like all of Wilson's plays, it's set in the inner city of his hometown. Troy is a garbage man, yes, but there was a time when he was a baseball player hitting them out of the park with the Negro League. And before that, he was a thief who did time after he killed a man during a botched robbery. Troy's convinced that he shoulda been a contender. "You just came around too early," his friend Bono (played by the wonderful Stephen McKinley Henderson) tells him. But Troy doesn't want to hear that times have changed and that someone named Jackie Robinson is doing just fine playing baseball with the white folks. He's mad at the world, mad at what wasn't, and his rage poisons his relationship with his son, Corey. Corey has a chance to go to college with a football scholarship, but Troy wants him to learn a trade. Keep it safe because there's no way the white man's going to give you a break. (He's got a Booker T. Washington point of view.)

"How come you ain't never liked me?" Corey asks him.

At times, watching Washington, it's hard to escape the inevitable comparisons to James Earl Jones. Jones owned that role over 20 years ago (and pity poor Billy Dee Williams who took over after Jones. No way he could keep up.) But where Jones is all basso profundo voice and outsized emotion, Washington has an easy jocularity that is at once sexual and teasing. You see the charm in the man, what made Rose fall in love with him, what his friends love about him. And when he finally erupts in anger, you see the menace--a menace that evokes his Oscar-winning turn as the bad cop in Training Day. Early on, Washington, a stage veteran who got his start with the famed Negro Ensemble Company, seemed to be struggling a bit with finding his stage voice. But a quarter of the way through, you could see him start to transform, slipping into Troy.

Both Jones and Washington are actors whose personas have made them marquee names. In performance, it's hard to escape the fact that you're watching James Earl Jones playing Big Daddy or Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X or Easy Rawlins. To say this isn't to knock their acting abilities--it's just the price of fame and having an outsized presence, the movie actor's conundrum, a conundrum also faced by, say, Cary Grant and Bette Davis decades before them.

But this can be a problem for the actors acting opposite them. Clearly, Davis can hold her own, but Chris Chalk, as Corey, doesn't have quite the power to play a worthy opponent to Washington's Troy. (In the original production, Troy's son was played by Courtney B. Vance, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance.) Nor does Mykelti Williamson fare much better. As Gabriel, Troy's war-damaged brother, Williamson is a jarring presence, evoking unwelcome comparisons to his turn as "Bubba" in Forrest Gump.

It's been said that an August Wilson play isn't a director's play (notwithstanding his long, fruitful collaboration with the late Lloyd Richards); rather, it's all about the actor. His plays--and Fences is no exception--are naturalistic and deceptively simple, requiring relatively straight-forward staging. No bells and whistles and outré interpretation is needed, and director Kenny Leon, who directed Wilson's Radio Golf, played with restraint. (Similarly, Branford Marsalis' music--from snippets of big band to rough and ready blues to spirituals--serves as a perfect punctuation in between scenes.) The actors, and Wilson's gorgeous language, are the true stars here.