August Wilson’s celebrated 1983 play “Fences,” which is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, was revived on Broadway in 2010 starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both of whom received Tony Awards. Both reprise their roles in the movie adaptation, along with several others from the original cast, and the film is directed by Washington. The result, as might be expected, is strong on acting and overly stagey.
As a director, Washington has chosen to keep Wilson’s play pretty much within the confines of a single set, and, although I respect him for not attempting to “open up” the play just to make it seem more “cinematic,” the cooped-up approach heightens the play’s weaknesses as well as its strengths.
Troy (Washington) is a trash collector with a load of chips on his shoulder. A promising baseball player, he was barred from the major leagues because of his skin color and spent time in prison. His wife, Rose (Davis), puts up with his careening moodswings, usually heightened on those Friday afternoons after work when Troy and his old friend, Bono (a marvelous Stephen Henderson), congregate in Troy’s backyard and break out the booze.
Troy’s youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is a star high school football player whose aspirations are demeaned by his father. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), an older son from a previous marriage, is a jazz musician who periodically shows up to uneasily ask Troy for a loan. With everyone seeking Troy’s favor in one way or another, he luxuriates in his sense of privilege. He’s brutally aware of his power over others, perhaps because he recognizes that he has so little control over his own impulses.
Wilson’s big and bulky play (reportedly trimmed considerably by Tony Kushner, who gets a co-producer credit) owes much to the family dysfunction classics of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, but it also has notes of heightened allegory that fall flat, such as the recurring character of Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s brain-damaged brother who keeps barging into the action to utter deranged prophecies.
We are obviously meant to regard Troy as a symbolic black man sacrificed on the altar of racial injustice. But his deep seething resentments turn him into a species of ogre, despite Washington’s attempts to humanize him, and Rose’s desperate attachment to Troy comes to seem less devotional than masochistic. Davis is quite powerful in those few scenes where Rose is allowed to break free from the character’s wary vigilance – where she pours out her hurt – but the scenes often play out as arias in an opera that never quite rises to full cry. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.)