Monday, May 24, 2010

Theater Review: Fences

In the 1950s the esteemed critic Walter Kerr lamented that it was not enough to go to the theater merely to see “live” actors perform dispassionately or, if we’re lucky, passionately on stage. After all we observe people in the flesh act out every day as we go about our quotidian activities. The great performer will make his experience our experience. He will invite us to join him “in a common activity.” For a theatrical event to be exciting, audience and actors must become “conspirators, signaling to one another through space.” And when this magical, “intensely demonstrative union takes place, the walls of the playhouse can hardly contain the spiritual excitement.” To feel this theatrical rush, you should hasten to the Cort on 47th Street in Manhattan, where Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are heating up the boards in the excellent revival of August Wilson’s Fences.

The play, brilliantly directed by Kenny Leon, takes place on Santo Loquasto’s fluent, rank-and-file backyard set, which is stunningly enhanced by Brian MacDevitt’s imaginative lighting design. “I ain’t worried about them firing me,” says Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) to his best friend, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). “They gonna fire me cause I asked a question?” The two men are garbage collectors, and this is not the first time Troy feels thwarted. He once had a promising future in baseball after he learned the game in a penitentiary, where he served 15 years for murder. But segregation helped to evaporate that goal. And although he is sometimes flippant to his son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), by a former wife, as well as to his brain-damaged brother (Mykelti Williamson), a World War II veteran, his feelings for his son Cory (Chris Chalk) by his current wife, are ambivalent. Cory wants to meet with a recruiter about a football scholarship. But Troy is not encouraging: “I thought you supposed to be working down there at the A&P.... I thought we had an understanding about this football stuff.”

When Troy’s wife, Rose (Viola Davis), asks her husband why he doesn’t “let the boy go ahead and play football.... He’s just trying to be like you with the sports,” the response comes quickly: “I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only good thing that happened to me. I wish him that.” But Rose tells Troy that “times have changed from when you were young. People change. The world’s changing around you and you can’t even see it.” And even when Troy insists that “nobody gonna hold his hand when he get out there in that world,” we sense that what Troy really wants is that his son not strike out.

All of the players in this luminous work are commendable; however, special attention must be given here to Washington and Davis. These two fine actors are giving the sort of legendary performances that have the ability to leave you scorched.

A startling revelation in the second act, which I will not reveal, changes the lives of the principal characters forever. But the theater audience is affected, too, for this searing production confirms that there are times when a Broadway play still has the ability to not only transfix but to restore us.