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A CurtainUp Review
Fences


Some people build fences to keep people out. . .and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. she loves you.
—Bono about the fence that Troy and his son Cory are working on throughout the play even though neither quite understand's why Rose wants it since their modest home "ain't got nothing nobody want."

If they got a white fellow sitting on the bench. . .you can bet your last dollar he can't play! The colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the team. That's why I don't want you to get all tied up in them sports.
—Troy, explaining why he refuses to let Cory be recruited by a college football team, but a reason Cory, in a fierce clash with his father sees quite differently: " You ain't never done nothin' but hold me back. Afraid I was gonna be better than you."
Fences
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (Photo: Joan Marcus)
August Wilson's Fences, the 1950s entry in his 10-play cycle of the African-American experience, is one of his most accessible and universal dramas. Its 1987 Pulitzer Prizes for drama was (like the second for The Piano Lesson) a richly deserved recognition of contemporary American drama at its most vibrant, enduring and theatrically powerful.

In Troy Maxson, Wilson also created a central character long remembered by theater goers and coveted by actors: an anti-hero who's tragically wrong headed, a loving husband but also an egregious betrayer, a caring father but unable to be a loving one. . .a man who typifies the tendency to repeat the patterns —especially past sins— that shaped us. The role earned James Earl Jones the 1987 Tony Award. Now that the play has returned to Broadway with Denzel Washington headlining the cast, it's a sure bet that this character whose story has often and understandably been likened to Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, will once again be in the running for a Best Actor Tony—not to mention a fistful of other awards.

Washington's name on the marque is no doubt the magnet that turned this beautifully staged limited run revival into a box office hit even before its official opening. But this is more than movie star casting. Denzel's Troy is the genuine article. He taps into this character's very human contradictions — the humor, the charismatic charm, the honorable intentions and righteousness. . . and the complex emotions that turn love, devotion and honor into unforgivable betrayal.

But when it comes to awards time, Viola Davis, who made her Broadway debut in Wilson's Seven Guitars got a Tony for her role in King Hedley IIas Troy's wife Rose is every bit a sure fire a contender. As Troy's wife Rose she is glowing presence. Her monologue upon learning of Troy's involvement with another woman is an operatic cry of anguish.

The audience's thunderous applause when Denzel Washington first came on stage at the matinee I attended made it clear that it was Washington, the film star, who brought many of them to the theater. But by the time they applauded Rose's stirring aria it was just as clear that they had become thoroughly involved in all of Wilson's rich drama and Denzel Washington, the film actor they'd come to see, had disappeared inside Troy Maxson — a man they could admire and yet hate and pity.

Director Kenny Leon, who's been associated with many Wilson plays, has assembled an able cast. It includes Stephen McKinley Henderson, a frequent Wilson interpreter, who is a standout as Troy's longtime buddy Bono. But it's Washington and Viola Davis who ignite the spark that make Fences once again sizzle with primal emotions and allow us to thrill to the poetry and musicality that are hallmarks of Wilson's writing. Speaking of Wilson's musicality, this production is enormously enhanced by the original music created by Branford Marsalis to set the mood for each scene.

While a universal story, Fences, true to the mission of writing a cycle of plays that dramatize the lives of African-Americans within the particulars of the decade in which their stories unfold. Thus the 1957 time frame introduces us to a man who was born too soon to be the great baseball star his talents and ambition warranted.

At age fifty-three Troy Maxson has survived a brutal childhood and a 15-year prison term to work as a rubbish collector for a department of sanitation that still has not allowed African-Americans to drive the garbage trucks instead of doing the heavy lifting. He and his beloved wife of eighteen years live in a very modest house bought with a $3000 government payment to his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) who returned from the Vietnam war mentally disabled. In this play Gabriel is the other worldly character who usually shows up in Wilson's otherwise realistic world. Wandering around town with a trumpet he plans to play when St. Peter calls him to the pearly gates, Gabriel appears only periodically —but he does get the last word (or, to be more precise, the last note).

Troy uses the task of building a fence around that house (which Rose wants less to keep burglars out than to keep her family safe and close), to keep a tight reign on Cory (Chris Chalk), his seventeen-year-old son with whom he has a combustible relationship that comes to a boil because Troy doesn't want Cory to apply for the college football scholarship — ostensibly to prevent him from being exploited and disappointed as he was in his ambitions to be a professional baseball player, though Cory's probably right when he accuses him of holding him back because he can't face having the son succeed as he didn't.

Troy also has an older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) from a first marriage, with whom he has an easier relationship even though he's scornful as he is of that son's fecklessness. Hornsby makes the self-serving rogue a likeable and ultimately supportive family member.

While Troy wins a victory in getting himself promoted from rubbish hauler to driver, it's the victory that's eluded him that the root cause for his sabotaging his marriage. Because his unrequieted love for baseball is even greater than his love for Rose, he can't resist the woman from Florida who somehow makes him feel like the man who could still — play in the big leagues.—

Wilson's initial aim for Fences — to reverse the stereotypical image of black men as irresponsible fathers — was prompted by the reality of his own experience as the son of a white father who abandoned his wife and six children and more responsible surrogate fathers. But while Troy certainly has a dogged commitment to take care of his family, Wilson was too much of a dra pro not to go beyond this objective in order to create a three-dimensional character whose shadow isn't lifted from his son's shoulder until the story's ending in 1965.

The topnotch production values include costumes by Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero. The only thing that changes in Santo Loquasto's wonderfully realistic set is that the fence is completed and the seeds planted near to the big leafy tree by young Raynell (played by one of two young actors, SaCha Stewart-Coleman at the performance I saw) will bloom as one hopes her future and Cory's will.

For an overview of August Wilson's life and career, and links to plays we've reviewed, including other productions of Fences, see the Wilson entry in Curtainup's Author's Album

Fences by August Wilson
Directed by Kenny Leon
Cast: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson), Viola Davis (Rose Maxson), Chris Chalk (Cory), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Jim Bono), Russell Hornsby (Lyons), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel). Eden Duncan-Smith and SaCha Stewart-Coleman (alternating as Raynell)
Sets: Santo Loquasto
Costumes: Constanza Romero
Lighting: Brian MacDevitt
Dound: ACME Sound Partners
Original Music: Branford Marsalis (Original Music)
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with intermission
Note: Latecomers will not be seated during the first act
Cort Theater 138 West 48th Street
From 4/14/10; opening 4/26/10; closing 7/11/10
Tuesday @ 7pm, Wednesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm Time Change: Sunday, June 13 @ 2pm
Tickets: $61.50 to !36.50; also premium seating
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 24th press preview
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