The current Broadway revival of Fences, the first since the play’s premiere in 1987, has a box office powerhouse in its star Denzel Washington. But his co-star Viola Davis is the on-stage powerhouse. Her raw, absorbing performance gives the show its emotional impact and makes this production of Fences a must-see.
The play, the first to win August Wilson a Pulitzer, is set in 1957 and centers on Troy Maxson (Washington) an illiterate ex-con whose hopes of a baseball career were destroyed by the racial integration of the sport. Now a weary, middle-aged garbage collector, he struggles with his inner demons while pushing away his wife Rose (Davis) and their teenage son Cory (Chris Chalk). In the play’s first act, he prevents his son from pursuing a sports scholarship, probably out of spite; in the second, he reveals to his wife that he hasn’t been faithful to their 18-year marriage.
To play this tragic hero, undone by himself, Washington rolls up his sleeves, puts on dirty overalls and does a decent job of finding the rough, rhythmic music of Wilson’s dialogue. (That’s especially true in the play’s earliest, happiest scenes, which include the excellent Wilson regular Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s best friend Bono). Washington plays each scene well enough as it comes, but his is a movie star performance. He doesn’t inhabit the character and navigates only the surface of the text.
While a magnetic physical presence, Washington isn’t threatening in the way he needs to be to drive the action and give the play gravity. (This especially lets down the confrontations with Chalk, which lack ferocity and danger.) Thus, this production comes off more as melodramatic soap opera than as a powerful tragic drama. As such, it is certainly involving and effective, but it’s Fences lite.
The consistent exception is when Viola Davis is on stage. The actress, who won a Tony in Wilson’s King Hedley II, brings operatic heft to the proceedings, while finding all the moment-to-moment shifts to make Rose a fully believable person. The scene in which Rose responds to her husbands betrayal is a whopper – Davis turns it into an aria of raw pain and emotional shock – but she’s riveting even in the quiet, unshowy scenes. Even when just stepping out of the kitchen onto the porch to call someone in for dinner, Davis puts a full inner life in the character.
Director Kenny Leon has paced the show too briskly to fully serve Wilson’s rhythms. Also, he’s blocked it a bit lifelessly with actors often glued to one spot, but he should be commended for his otherwise solid, clarifying work.