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Cort Theater

If you’re going to revive a play or musical these days you better have a bankable star. Who wants to take a chance in this time of astronomical production and ticket costs? Yet – and here’s the disclaimer – there’s a bonus if the new leads are also good. And so they turn out to be this time, as witness Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in “Fences.”

The last time Washington headed a Broadway cast, he came an artistic, though not a financial cropper as Brutus in “Julius Caesar.” This time he conquers, incisively revealing the over-the-hill pain of a man whose public triumphs are far behind him and whose private humiliations will destroy whatever he has left.

Wilson’s play is akin to “Death of a Salesman” in its harsh assessment of those destroyed by pursuit of the American Dream. Troy Maxson bemoans his not having been able to play Major League baseball at a time when blacks were barred from any but the Negro League. Like the failing Willy Loman in “Salesman,” Maxson also has sons in whom he’s put his twisted hopes, and a wife whom he betrays.

A big man who talks easily of women and drink, an ex-con with a shell-shocked brother, an illegitimate son, another son by the wife he loves and a mistress, Maxson is a towering, fatally flawed figure. Wife Rose is a homemaker to her core, washing clothes, hanging them to dry, cooking. (There’s always something on the stove: pigsfeet, shortribs, chicken, meatloaf.) She accepts Troy for the boastful but hollow, strong-willed but disappointed man he is, a man trying to move forward while standing still, always aware of lurking death.

Their story is the story of descendants of former slaves come north (the setting is Pittsburgh) to exercise their freedom and search for their piece of the dream. Since the play takes place in 1957, civil rights fires have not yet burned. Maxson accepts his lot, even building a symbolic yard fence. “Some people build fences to keep people out,” says best friend, Bono (a matchless Stephen McKinley Henderson), “and other people build fences to keep people in.”

Under Kenny Leon’s clarifying direction, Washington carefully, deliberately ties his characterization to music and sports, metaphors for his bitter past. His rhythms have the cadences of rough poetry. In the climactic confrontation scene with Rose, Washington becomes a pitiable figure. He’s matched by Davis’ luminous Rose, a woman who has poured all of herself into building a family only to see her edifice crash. Hers is a magnificent portrayal that breaks the heart. These are worthy, vulnerable human beings brought low by stubborn pride and acted with burning intensity.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 16, 2010

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