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June 11, 2010

Review: Fences

by Jesse North

The way Fences transported me to another world is the way that all plays should. And I was standing for the entire performance.

With a standing-room ticket (because that’s the only way to get into this show without breaking the bank), Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Santo Loquasto’s set, and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting pulled me into 1957 Pittsburg. The night felt like an event. You could chalk it up to the massive Hollywood-star wattage displayed on stage, and you’d be right. The way the audience of the Cort Theatre was buzzing is what Stage Rush is all about—people getting an adrenaline rush from theater. It wasn’t just Washington and Davis’ presence that made it an event though—it was the quality of the piece on display, and the acting chops and production value to match it.

August Wilson’s Fences focuses on Troy Maxson, an intense man who likes to tell big stories in order to make himself seem bigger. While he exhausts his diatribes, all his wife, best friend, and sons can do is wait for him to finish. Troy likes to recount his days as a baseball star, and how the whites stopped him from breaking into the majors. He tells animated tall tales about how he wrestled with death himself, and how he dares him to a repeat match. Troy also lectures about his unfeeling father and the unspeakable violent streak that he had. There is a lot bubbling underneath Troy’s skin, which appears to be harmlessly blustery and jovial above the surface.

Washington brings rich complexity to Troy. He makes him appealing to the audience, then circles through repulsion, fear, and manages to return to sympathetic. What makes Washington’s performance so full is that he makes it so that there isn’t one way to feel about Troy—you have to feel everything, just like he does.

Davis is a wonderment of restraint as Troy’s loyal wife, Rose. Rose waits patiently during Troy’s impassioned rants, riding out the storm of which she knows every blow and thunder clap. Together, Washington and Davis paint a love-filled relationship, but with a helping of recklessness on Troy’s side and patience on Rose’s. Troy constantly tests their marriage, and when the time comes for Rose to unleash her anguish, Davis conjures up in two hours what has taken Rose 18 years to. Davis makes the Cort Theatre shake.

Director Kenny Leon not only allowed the two superpowers that are Washington and Davis to coexist on the same stage, but also for the terrific supporting cast to stand out among the Hollywood heavyweights. Chris Chalk is innocent and devastating as Troy and Rose’s yearning son. Russell Hornsby effectively conveys the neglect Lyons feels as Troy’s son from a previous marriage. Stephen McKinley Henderson is touching as Troy’s faithful friend, who wisely worries for the couple. And in a small, but haunting, role, Mykelti Williamson is heartbreaking as Troy’s loving, brain-damaged brother. Together, they create an extended family with both love and trouble eating through the cracks.

The Maxsons’ front yard isn’t anything to speak of in their world, but Loquasto’s set design brings it popping into the Cort Theatre with shocking vividness. It’s so quaint and cozy, I wanted to curl up on the porch and try Rose’s cooking. Spectacularly detailed, Loquasto presents the texture of the ground, to the kitchen that’s behind the front window. Complimenting the beautiful tree in the Maxson’s yard, MacDevitt’s lighting design gorgeously layers the shadows cast by the leaves upon the roof and ground. MacDevitt mimics the sunlight of dawn, late afternoon, and evening so well that at times I would have swore there was a skylight in the theater.

Fences is a devastating drama of one man’s regrets and hurts and how they slowly destroy his family and friends. Troy’s fight with the world is beautifully portrayed by Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and the rest of the cast. Despite the sadness and disappointment that exists in their world, I didn’t want to leave it. Yet the truth is, August Wilson based their world off of ours, and that’s what makes Fences haunting.

The rush
This limited run of Fences, which—coming as no surprise—sells 132 percent of its tickets every week, just recently announced a standing-room-only policy. There isn’t a general or student rush policy—this is all you’re going to get. I had the audacity to try for these tickets during Tony week (for which this show is nominated for 10 awards), so I knew I needed to be aggressive with this rush. I arrived at the Cort Theatre at 7:55 a.m. on a Wednesday (a two-show day, always a benefit, as the likelihood of scoring a ticket is greater) and there were still three people ahead of me. Other rushers were smart too—by 8:30 a.m., the line consisted of 15, which is a number not usually seen until the last half hour before the box office opens. A standing-room ticket costs $26.50 and two per person can be purchased. The Cort is built strangely, in that there isn’t standing room space behind the last row of seats in the orchestra, so the standing room section is behind the last row in the mezzanine. These tickets are as far away and as high up as one can get. That said, the Cort is small, and I could easily see the show’s big stars. Standing for a show is never fun, but for this wonderful production and the opportunity to see Denzel Washington perform live, it’s a worthy deal.

Play: A- / Rush: B

Photo: Joan Marcus

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