Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 26, 2010
Fences by August Wilson. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Constanza Romero. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Original music by Branford Marsalis. Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Eden Duncan-Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, SaCha Stewart-Coleman, Mykelti Williamson.
Washington’s Troy is not a man who’s outgrown, physically or figuratively, his youthful promise as the Jackie Robinson that Jackie Robinson should have been. Washington’s glimmering eyes and forward-thinking magnetism paint this Troy as one who’s never abandoned those hopes on any level. He doesn’t believe deep down that he could still fulfill those aspirations — it’s all right at the surface. So when he hits a bundle of rags tied to a tree as if it were a ball, confronts his eldest son about his predatory borrowing or his younger son about the unlikeliness of his own football career coming true, or admitting to his wife an indiscretion that could tear apart their 18-year marriage, it’s not selfishness but confidence that’s his guiding light.
So the modest Washington, hardly the mountain of fury Jones was reported to be in the original production, is nonetheless entirely convincing as the play’s tragic center. You see in every line etched in his face and hear in every overarticulated threat the debilitating background that’s made Troy who he is. You never doubt that this is a man who chased off his abusive father, landed in jail, and then reformed himself as a garbage man — for him, his big break is always just one recruiter away. The names, faces, and attitudes — toward him and his skin — might change, but his impenetrability doesn’t, and Washington wields it with a devastating force that keeps Fences both trenchant and timeless.
Santo Loquasto’s set is an elegantly dirty evocation of working-class scraping-by abutting heartless industrialism: white fantasy forever overshadowing (literally) black reality. The costumes by Constanza Romero (Wilson’s widow) have a simple, makeshift appeal that constructs high fashion even out of the lowest means. Brian MacDevitt’s subtly and hauntingly subdue or enflame the fires always just about to break out on this homestead. The acclaimed Branford Marsalis provides a sinuous jazz-blues score that outlines with startling fluidity the conflicts that defined the era.
Viola Davis is superb as Troy’s wife, Rose. A font of firm-handed joy in the earlier scenes that require her support, she morphs effortlessly into the self-dense artist who must guard her soul and her home from threats both foreign and domestic. You always see in her smile and behind her eyes, the glimmer of her own kind of belief: that she can win the small battles over the short or the long term. Davis’s tactics, ranging from the playful to the brutal, work right up to the final scene, in which she must consign to history Troy’s influence over her and her children. She makes you understand how all these contradictory women could exist within the same body — and, in fact, had to at a time when black women were the last and best line of defense in keeping their families in check.
Stephen McKinley Henderson is typically sturdy as Troy’s long-standing friend Bono, just the right rock of personal and moral gravitas. Russell Hornsby is the picture of suave comedy as Troy’s ambitiously unambitious older son (from another woman). And Mykelti Williamson is a thoroughly rounded delight as Troy’s brother, Gabriel—ostensibly rendered infantile as a result of World War II wounds, but really that indispensible Wilson character of the cloudy-minded bystander who somehow sees the bigger picture more clearly than almost anyone else.
Aside from the locale and the skin-tingling speeches — some of the playwright’s all-time best come from Troy, explaining the man he’s become as a result of facing down death, the devil, and even his own flesh and blood — Gabriel is one of the closest ties to the rest of Wilson’s complete Century Cycle. Looking at Fences now, as part of the collection, you can’t help but see both the present and absent thematic links (no Aunt Ester, for example) and the structural oddities that differentiate it. Covering a longer span of time, with more (and shorter) scenes, it definitely feels like a transitional work, a mature voice searching for its preferred words.
But it remains emotionally unmatched among all of Wilson’s works, a moving tribute to American men of every skin color who give and take in approximately equal measure (if not always equal ferocity). Its characters may still be forced to tread carefully in their pocket of land on the white man’s property, but they speak with the pained elegance and expectations of an age where all that’s about to change. Washington’s Troy, who’s never lost sight of either his or his people’s final goal, could not be a more fitting symbol of the pain and promise the 1960s will bring. But everything about this Fences prepares them — and us — in the most electric way possible for the gate that history is just about to thrust open.