August Wilson's Fences is a stage actor's bounty, a dense, dramatic slice of African-American life calling for acting with a capital A. Cinema prefers lower case, rather than playing to rafters that aren't there.
I'm reminded of that axiom throughout Denzel Washington's adaptation of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, slightly problematic in screen form. Fences defies cinema's need for "opening up" stage adaptations. Or perhaps it's that Washington doesn't try much, directing so reverentially to text as to seem uninspired.
As an actor, though, Washington is seldom as incendiary as when portraying Troy Maxson, a working class husband and father with deep love and fractious ways of showing it, a sympathetic abuser. Troy rages against anything wronging him, which is anything not treating him right. King Kong, as Washington's Training Day character would agree, has got nothing on Troy.
Living modestly in 1950's Pittsburgh, Troy is a garbage collector hoping to break a color barrier with a promotion to driving the truck. Fences opens on a Friday after work, Troy sharing a whiskey pint and shaggy tales with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy's wife Rose (Viola Davis) dotes with a trace of the intimidated; clearly she knows Troy's mean side. Then son Cory (Jovan Adepo) arrives and it's displayed for all.
Cory's desire to play high school football reignites Troy's bitterness about his failed baseball career. Troy lays blame entirely on discrimination when, as Wilson's dialogue rolls on, dropping backstory nuggets, it's clear he sabotaged himself. Cory doesn't need to set himself up for a letdown like that, Troy says, while ignoring what a disappointment he is to his son.
Fences is a prickly tribute to fatherhood, presenting an example who certainly isn't a role model. Troy's dominance is never more destructive to his household than when he strays beyond it. Issues of infidelity arise and with them Rose's own anger for a man who put her through years of pain and somehow found more. Davis gets her own chance to rage, putting Troy and Academy Award voters in their places.
Washington and Davis each won Tony awards for a Fences revival directed by St. Petersburg's Kenny Leon in 2010, with 114 performances prepping them for this production. The results are brilliant, intensely personal in a way that actors seldom get to connect with material in rehearsals. It's important to capture artists like Davis and Washington at their peaks for posterity, even in a difficult medium for any play.
Wilson's adaptation, completed before his 2005 death, is propelled by soliloquies delivered in a backyard or kitchen, perhaps a tavern added for brief variety. Washington has fire in his belly before the cameras and a proscenium eye behind it. Fences might be completely effective under the Fathom Events format, a live stage performance beamed to theater screens.
That strategy might also tone down the ham factor in a couple of supporting performances. Henderson's sidekick confidante and Mykelti Williamson as Troy's brain-damaged brother Gabriel (toting a horn, of course) are caricatures rather than characters. And while I can guess that Wilson's finale works well on stage, it's a cringe inducer on screen.
If Fences occasionally feels cinematically inert, it's emotionally resonant thanks to Davis and Washington the actor, not the director as much. They'll certainly be around through awards season along with Wilson, a wordsmith deserving this posthumous curtain call.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.