Sometimes an actor just has to come home to roost to rediscover just what they were put out there for in the first place. After churning out a score of lackluster thrillers in the last decade, Denzel Washington has turned his sights back to the stage, which is where he was originally discovered and promptly landed a lucrative gig on TV’s St. Elsewhere. After a hugely successful but critically slammed 2005 Broadway version of Julius Caesar, Washington has now turned his sights to one of the great 20th-century black male roles, that of Troy Maxson, the ex-Negro League sanitation worker/back-porch prophet from August Wilson’s galvanizing 1987 drama Fences. The first thought that came to mind when this casting was announced was that Washington was too handsome, too presentable to disappear into Troy’s baseball metaphor-ridden weariness, a not-charmless blowhard who has quickly become a gust of constant hot air sucking the oxygen right out of his own backyard. Well, turns out I was very wrong.
The truth is, Washington is just about perfect for this role when you see him in action—exactly the right age, exactly the right sense of overinflated machismo. Best of all, the play capitalizes on Washington’s ingrained showman qualities, not put to such electric use in ages on film and even in such roles as his Oscar-winning turn in 2001’s Training Day, a sense of artifice always seemed to be in the way. The theatricality was there, but not the underlying self-awareness to make it truly pop. Washington gives a revelatory performance here, mostly because Troy only works if you have an actor who believes his own bluster in the role (I imagine James Earl Jones was truly volcanic in the role 23 years ago). But under Kenny Leon’s sensitive, knowing direction, Washington has turned the tragic figure into something slightly more pitiable: a harping hound dog who can’t pretend to be anything but.
Leon’s first-rate revival is simple and unfussy, and Wilson’s work is always better when directors don’t attach conceptual flights of fancy to it (Bartlett Sher’s overdressed, lifting-scenery shtick nearly derailed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone last year). And the terrific cast that supports Washington makes him even better scene for scene, especially master Wilson interpreter Stephen McKinley Henderson as his gin-swilling best pal Bono, the affecting Chris Chalk as Troy’s put-upon, football-hopeful son Cory, and the shattering Viola Davis as Rose, Troy’s rock-solid wife of 18 years. You marvel at how subtly Rose’s admiration for Troy turns into steady ennui after her character receives a devastating blow in act two; this key transformation is what sets a fine actress like Davis, displaying a heady emotional range throughout, apart from many of her peers.
Despite this show’s entirely overzealous attendees (you’d swear at times you were sitting through Lend Me a Tenor with all the rollicking laughter one could hear), it’s easy to forget how funny some of Wilson’s writing can be. For instance, when Troy’s elder musician son from a previous relationship (nicely played by Russell Hornsby) asks him to listen to him perform, Troy barks out that he “don’t like that Chinese music,” and it’s moments like these that shine a light on the compartmentalized state of the Maxson household (well captured by Santo Loquasto’s rustic backyard set) without ever becoming too coarse or obvious. Like most of Wilson’s work, defeat isn’t necessarily the order of things, and it’s only fitting that Fences traditionally concludes on a beacon of light. Truly apropos, as this production is most definitely lit from within.
Fences is now playing at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th St.) in New York City through July 11. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Wed & Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, one intermission.