It is entirely possible that August Wilson’s unashamedly melodramatic play “Fences” is even better than I originally thought it was, or just that it has firmly taken its place as the most emotionally stirring among all the plays in the Wilson canon. At any rate, under Kenny Leon’s firm direction, it stands tall, maybe even as the tallest, among the many excellent dramatic revivals that have graced Broadway stages this season. One of the more conventionally structured of Wilson’s plays, “Fences” focuses on a low-income, inner-city family during the 1950s. It has proven to be his most popular and successful. “Fences” is the second (it followed “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) in the cycle of 10 plays that Wilson wrote depicting African-American life over the ten decades of the 20th century.
Ex-con Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a strong, belligerent, prideful trash collector who has forged a home and an insular world of dignity for himself and his family. Through his combustible and complex relationship with his best friend and one-time jail-mate, Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Troy harbors memories of himself as a promising slugger in the Negro leagues before he scrapped his youthful dreams for a path that seemed to be the only one for an impoverished black man.
Washington, who is returning to Broadway for the first time since he starred impressively in “Julius Caesar,” has stepped equally impressively into the role of the blustery, inflexible patriarch who questions whether the fence he is putting up around his home and small piece of property is meant to keep people out or to keep his family in.
Washington’s performance grows perceptively in its intensity as the play progresses from one increasingly harrowing scene to the next. He is also a disarming charmer as he expresses his romantic impulses to his not-to-be-coddled wife Rose, superbly acted by Viola Davis. Davis, who won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for her performance in Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” gives a heartbreakingly real portrait of a devoted wife whose love is suddenly compromised by her husband’s infidelity.
Mykelti Williamson is excellent as Troy’s brain-damaged brother Gabriel who earns little more than Troy’s passively fraternal concern. Russell Hornsby makes a fine and genial impression as Troy’s oldest mostly out-of-work musician son Lyons who stops by every Friday for a handout.
But the real dramatic conflict comes in Troy’s relationship with his younger son, Cory (Chris Chalk), an ambitious, talented high school senior who has been singled out by a football team recruiter. Mistrusting the white world, and unable to accept the possibility that Cory may succeed where he failed, Troy alienates Cory with his unyielding behavior. Filled with psychological hang-ups and fixated with an inbred fear of being exploited and victimized by whites, Troy refuses to see how changing times are offering his son an opportunity that he never had.
Washington is not the towering presence that was James Earl Jones in the original 1987 production. But Washington is no less a compelling dramatic force as he unleashes the fury in Troy’s unbridled outbursts and irrational tirades. But he also makes us see deeply into this complex man who is unwilling to channel love directly to his younger son, unable to restrain himself from being unfaithful to Rose, and incapable of finding peace in his own heart. Troy is as unsentimentally conceived as he is poignantly real. Except for a resolution that seems awkwardly tacked on, “Fences” is dramatic theater at its grandest.
An unexpected treat is exciting original musical underscoring composed by Branford Marsalis. Santo Loquasto’s setting — a dirt backyard and alleyway surrounding the modest home — craftily suggests the Pittsburgh neighborhood in 1957 where the extended Maxson family has learned to confront demons as fearlessly as they also courageously reconsider their dreams. ****
“Fences,” through Sunday July 11, Cort Theater, 148 West 48th Street $61.50 to $136.50.