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It’s fitting that Denzel Washington, playing an former Negro Leagues player, brandishes a baseball bat numerous times in the Broadway revival of the late August Wilson’s “Fences.” The actor, bravely assuming the role in which James Earl Jones gave a memorably titanic, award-winning performance in the 1987 original production, hits it out of the park.
Wilson’s drama, part of his 10-play cycle depicting African-American life in different decades of the 20th century, is perhaps his most accessible. But its straightforward, at times even melodramatic story line doesn’t detract from the work’s raw power, which is well brought out in director Kenny Leon’s superbly acted production.
Washington, in his first Broadway turn since “Julius Caesar” five years ago, plays Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old Pittsburgh sanitation worker who struggles to support his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis) and 17-year-old son Cory (Chris Chalk). His extended family includes his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), brain-damaged since suffering a war injury, and his grown son, jazz musician Lyons (Russell Hornsby), the product of an earlier marriage who periodically shows up begging for loans.
Despite his passionate ardor for his wife — constantly expressed in playfully earthy terms — Troy clearly is a troubled figure, an ex-con still bitter over the racial prejudice that prevented him from playing in the major leagues. He angrily refuses to let his son play high school football, despite the fact that the young man’s talents already have attracted the attention of college scouts. And, as we eventually learn, he also harbors a secret that will eventually have life-changing effects for everyone concerned.
Set in 1957 in the backyard of the Maxsons’ modest house, the play depicts the first playful but increasingly charged confrontations between Troy and his family, with a major plot point involving the building of a fence that has all too symbolic meaning.
Having claimed to have once “wrestled with death” for three days during a bout with pneumonia, Troy affirms, “He’s gonna have to fight to get me; I ain’t going easy.” But he’s less successful in banishing his demons, which ultimately result in this fiercely proud but volatile figure alienating the people he loves most.
His movie-star charisma on full display, Washington infuses his compelling turn with equal doses of raucous humor and barely contained violence that keep the audience constantly off-guard. He’s beautifully matched by Davis, who conveys her character’s indefatigable inner strength and endless reserves of warmth so vividly that when her character suffers a deep betrayal in Act 2, the effect is shattering.
A nearly unrecognizable Williamson is deeply moving as the brain-damaged brother, while Stephen McKinley Henderson (a Wilson veteran) is superb as Bono, Troy’s common-sense-talking best friend. Hornsby well conveys the older son’s carefree, reckless spirit, and Chalk — given the formidable task of frequently going toe-to-toe with Washington — generally rises to the challenge.
Among the production’s strengths are Santo Loquasto’s realistic set design, which is beautifully lit by Brian MacDevitt; the authentically well-worn costumes by Constanza Romero, the playwright’s widow; and the atmospheric blues/jazz musical score by Branford Marsalis.
Venue: Cort Theatre, New York (Through July 11)
Presented by Carole Shorenstein Hays and Scott Rudin
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Chris Chalk, Eden Duncan-Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, SaCha Stewart-Coleman, Mykelti Williamson
Playwright: August Wilson
Director: Kenny Leon
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Constanza Romero
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
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