×

Fences

Denzel Washington turns in a heartfelt performance as one of the true heroes of modern theater.

With:
Troy Maxson - Denzel Washington Jim Bono - Stephen McKinley Henderson Rose - Viola Davis Lyons - Russell Hornsby Gabriel - Mykelti Williamson Cory - Chris Chalk Raynell - Eden Duncan-Smith, Sacha Stewart-Coleman (alt.)

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Fences

Cort Theater; 1079 seats; $126.50 top

Production: A Carole Shorenstein Hays and Scott Rudin presentation of a play in two acts by August Wilson. Directed by Kenny Leon.

Creative: Set, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Constanza Romero; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Acme Sound Partners; original music, Branford Marsalis; production stage manager, Narda E. Alcorn. Reviewed April 24, 2010. Opened April 26. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast: Troy Maxson - Denzel Washington Jim Bono - Stephen McKinley Henderson Rose - Viola Davis Lyons - Russell Hornsby Gabriel - Mykelti Williamson Cory - Chris Chalk Raynell - Eden Duncan-Smith, Sacha Stewart-Coleman (alt.)

More Legit

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content