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 in 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 a 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 Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Cory (Chris Chalk). The key word here is responsibility, a word Troy reveres 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 hisoldest 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 Rose, a wife who has sacrificed all for her family. Husband and child anchor her. And when that bond is broken, Rose 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 a 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,” 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.