In the inverted optics of stardom, celebrities, seen up close and in person, tend to grow smaller. Denzel Washington certainly did five years ago when he mounted the Broadway stage (for the first time since his green, pre-Glory years) as Brutus in Dan Sullivan’s dusty, pallid Julius Caesar. Washington chewed hard on that performance but refused to spit it out, and, by the end, he looked a little chewed up and reduced himself. His Brutus was all fussy, film-tic twiddling—manly diffidence reading as actorly disinterest—and he seemed only too happy to let Caesar’s crown pass him by. Not so the older and bolder Denzel holding court at the Cort right now, playing the towering, tottering patriarch Troy Maxson in Fences, the fifties chapter of August Wilson’s ten-part, century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle. This Denzel comes out swinging.
Troy, Wilson’s greatest single creation, is an epic talker, a mytho-poetic hero of his own authorship. First assayed by James Earl Jones in 1987, he’s a black working-class godhead, a Pittsburgh garbageman with virtues and flaws of Jovian scope, and a creature composed of pure language: He knows the moment he stops filling his small, symbol-strewn yard with his unstinting song of himself is the moment he begins to die. Washington’s version doesn’t have Jones’s Krakatoan physicality or those crack-of-doom pipes, of course: He looks and acts less like a lifelong big man and more the wiry welterweight who’s grown himself a congratulatory belly. An illiterate ex-ballplayer born too early to benefit from the Jackie Robinson era, Troy won’t experience the full-flowering of the sixties social revamp either. Instead, he fights by inches: lobbying the city and the union for the right to drive a garbage truck, ascetically turning over his paycheck to his more-pragmatic spouse. His victories are crucial, but incremental, and they’re not enough to satisfy his mythic self: He’s too full of generational pain, restless grievance, and bilious energy—something’s going to give way under the strain, and, ultimately, nearly everything does. But Troy remains chief deity beyond the proscenium line: He bestrides the stage like a Colossus, daring everyone to topple him, knowing and perhaps even secretly hoping that someone eventually will.
Very like a god, Troy sees his children as both extensions and cancellations of himself, and grapples with this by treating his sons—full-grown ne’er-do-well musician Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and ambitious high schooler Cory (Chris Chalk)—with titanic cruelty. Very like a god, he takes both his familial responsibilities and his extramarital pleasures seriously. He spins bardic yarns about wrestling Death to a draw, about meeting the Devil and asking for a line of credit, about beating his oppressive sharecropper father with a leather strap. Not one of these tales can be accepted as literal truth: “I know you got some Uncle Remus in your blood,” says his best friend Bono (Hill District regular Stephen McKinley Henderson, easy and ingenious as ever with his line readings), and Washington’s Troy, no simple blusterer, signals as much in every telling. Like every outsize Wilson creation, he invites you to dismiss him as caricature, right up to the moment he surprises you with unguessable depths. He talks rhythmically and compulsively of his very fleshly love for his adoring, implacable second wife, Rose (Viola Davis), describing their nightly assignations as his attempt to “blast a hole into forever." Which is more or less what Washington is attempting with this performance: to ravish and rip through the fabric of reality itself.
You can see why he’d want to: It’s cramped up there. Santo Loquasto’s set both comforts and suffocates Troy, and the audience, as well. The house—a literally rendered Hill District homeplace with one of its second-story windows bricked up, like a blinded eye—is stolid brick, and so is the horizon. Here, the future is a blind alley. The yard that serves as amphitheater for every Maxson-family scene is a shallow one, and more than once, Washington looks like he might launch himself out of it, into the throng.
As in many Wilson shows, a languorous and expository first act gives way to paroxysms of stock plotlines in the second. The potboiler-ish story developments are more or less beside the point. (Mykelti Williamson does his best to redeem the troublesome damaged-prophet role of Uncle Gabriel, Troy’s brain-damaged brother and a rag puppet of crude symbology, but it’s no use: The role is grandfathered in from an altogether more primitive melodrama.) Fences, like Troy’s personal universe, is a singularity, a hole in forever, a moment in time, not a proper narrative arc. It’s a cloistered cosmos mortared with language. Characters soliloquize and subside, and one of the greatest talents an actor can bring to Wilson’s lopsided dialogic situations is the ability to listen. In this, Viola Davis proves herself a virtuoso. It’s fiendishly difficult to be silent, receptive, and honestly observant onstage—far more challenging, in my opinion, than actual declamation. Davis, with every wary sidelong look, firm demurral, and careful burst of laughter, perfects and completes Washington’s already tremendous performance. Her approach to Rose turns the trope of the dutiful black mother on end, and suggests a world inside her domestic redoubt that even the play can only begin to imagine. Leon may have missed a few opportunities to coax a bit more vulnerability out of Washington; one climactic second-act scene in particular falls badly askew as a result, suggesting grotesque comedy where none is called for. But Davis finds a way to supply it on the side. It’s tremendous work from a rightly revered actress of uncommon subtlety. Playing wife to a god, of any size, is no small thing.