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.
"What law is there say I gotta like you?.... It's my job. It's my responsibility. A man supposed to take care of my family ... I ain't got to like you."
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.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.