Troy Maxson deserves a place alongside Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman as a towering figure in American drama, and Denzel Washington is showing us why with a commanding performance in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s 1987 “Fences.”
Troy grew up poor, ran away from home, did hard time in prison and became a baseball star in the Negro Leagues at a time when blacks were still barred from the majors.
In 1957, when “Fences” takes place, Troy is a volcano of disappointment waiting to erupt. He lives in Pittsburgh’s black ghetto, the Hill district, where he works as a garbage collector to support a loving wife, Rose, and teenage son, Cory.
Cory is a high-school football hero being recruited by colleges, which Troy thwarts, whether through true concern or, more likely, jealous rage. Lyons, an older son from an earlier union and now a jazz musician, shows up each payday for a handout.
The setting is the backyard of the modest house Troy was able to buy on the Army disability pay of his brother Gabriel, whose wartime head wound has rendered him delusional. For weeks, Troy and Cory have been at work on a new wooden fence for their tiny plot of land.
Not very much happens beyond fairly typical generational and matrimonial conflict that, vise-like, closes in on Troy, leading him inevitably to marital betrayal and a wrenching showdown with Cory.
Wilson brings an extraordinary compassion for these characters’ dreams as well as for their rather grimmer realities. The dialogue rings of poetry and always surprises.
There are wonderful accounts by Troy about his fights with Death and the Devil, and by mad brother Gabriel about his sojourn in heaven and fights with hellhounds.
Washington conveys Troy’s thinking and feeling with utmost clarity and dignity, yet also perplexity and, eventually, great but controlled pain. He is matched by the smoldering Rose of Viola Davis, who has to endure a terrific emotional blow -- first stunned, then furious and finally triumphant.
As the play moves through time, there are gripping changes in Chris Chalk’s Cory, and Stephen McKinley Henderson, an old Wilson hand, is delightfully pawky as Bono, Troy’s closest friend. Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson lend cogent support as, respectively, Lyons and Gabriel, and Eden Duncan-Smith is natural and winning as a little girl.
Santo Loquasto’s set reveals grace in near-poverty and Brian MacDevitt has provided subtle light transitions. The costumes by Constanza Romero, the playwright’s widow, are simple but telling, and Branford Marsalis’s music aptly blends with the dialogue.
Kenny Leon’s direction weaves all these outstanding elements into a seamless whole. The result is a story that grows before our eyes as movingly as the fences that, both real and symbolic, drive home the play’s title.
At the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ****
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(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)