No, you don’t need to frontload the production with a star to mount a successful revival of “Fences.” August Wilson’s 1987 drama, the Pulitzer Prize-winning centerpiece of his 10-play Century Cycle about the African-American experience, is a masterpiece, and this meticulously mounted production does it proud. That said, it definitely does not hurt to have a high-wattage superstar like Denzel Washington toplining the show in the role originally defined by James Earl Jones. Although quirkily cast as a gruff, middle-aged sanitation worker, Washington turns in a heartfelt performance as one of the true tragic heroes of modern American theater.
“Fences,” which leads off the second half of Wilson’s great play cycle, is inextricably rooted in its 1950s time frame, a period when work made a man proud and the social stability of a man’s family was deeply valued by the working classes. In Wilson’s authorial vision, the personal tragedy of Troy Maxson, the Pittsburgh sanitation worker played by Washington, becomes the collective tragedy of the black working class.
The sweetest (and saddest) aspect of Troy’s character is his touching belief in the fairness of the American system. This descendant of slaves holds himself tall as a free man who believes that financial security and social respect can both be achieved through honest work. The good luck of a neighbor who hits the lottery makes him crazy. And he flies into a fury when his teenage son, Cory (in a likable perf from Chris Chalk), quits his after-school job to play on the football team.
It’s hard not to think of the towering presence of Jones when this stern, morally conflicted man wrestles with the demons that send him into wild rages. Or to remember how the stage shook when Jones exploded at the son who dared defy Troy’s parental authority.
Washington doesn’t make us quake the same way when Troy has one of his temperamental outbursts (“I’m the boss! I’m the boss around here!”). But he never lets us forget the essential decency that motivates the man’s rash decisions and thoughtless cruelty, and he’s heartbreaking when he articulates Troy’s yearning for something softer and sweeter than the rigid life he’s made for himself and forced onto his family.
Curiously enough, for someone so blessed with charisma of his own, the only time Washington finds himself in trouble is in the early scenes, when the full force of Troy’s charm is on display — before he shows the moody side of his character that the thesp seems happier playing.
Troy is most irresistible when he comes roaring in from work on a Friday night bearing his paycheck, a pint of liquor, and a sack of potatoes, like a hunter proudly hauling home his kill. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt practically throws a halo around him as he strides through the gate of his little kingdom and onto the back porch of the worn-down house that in Santo Loquasto’s warm rendering feels like a mansion.
All those people in his backyard depend on him: his put-upon, but forgiving wife, Rose (Viola Davis, a treasure); his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, the epitome of a best friend); his brain-damaged brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson); Lyons (Russell Hornsby), the musician son who has no use for his father’s values; and Cory, the kid who’s forced against his will to live by them.
Washington comes into his own when everything that Troy loves and values becomes lost to him. He’s especially moving in the wrenching scene when Troy tries to explain himself to Rose, the wife he’s betrayed. Without overtly pleading for sympathy, he makes a compassionate case for an essentially decent man who is just plain worn out from trying to live up to his own hard and honest — but unforgiving — values.
Davis (who was unforgettable in “Seven Guitars”) is even more electrifying when Rose throws it all back in his face with an impassioned lament for her own lost freedoms. And, in a way, Rose has the last word on her husband when she observes sadly that he’s still fighting battles that have already been won. “Times have changed,” she says, and her man just never got the word.