A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
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.
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 also a sure fire a contender. Her Rose 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 people 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 that 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 allows 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.
The universal story, Fences is true to Wilson's 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 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 relationship comes to a boil because Troy doesn't want Cory to apply for the college football scholarship — ostensibly this is to prevent him from being exploited and disappointed as he was in his ambitions to be a professional baseball player. However, Cory is 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, despite being scornful 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's 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 a 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 was 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 drama 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