The power implicit in live theater is obvious. But that power is never more present than when it involves exploring the lives of troubled characters who stalk the stage, often doing as much harm as good. Think of Oedipus. Think of Hedda Gabler. Think of Willy Loman.
Now think of Troy Maxson, the protagonist of the late August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-, and Tony Award-winning stage play “Fences.” Originated on Broadway by the great James Earl Jones, Troy is now the focus of a film directed, and acted in, by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington.
Washington’s Troy is a powerful man – relatively speaking. Troy is a black man living in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, and he collects garbage for a living. So he isn’t exactly Gordon Gekko. In his own house, though, he is the undeniable master.
He’s personable enough, especially to his longtime friend, Bono (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson) and to his wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis). And he does love to bandy words – peppering the air with phrases that express a seemingly good-natured provocation, many of those phrases woven into a kind of self-protective fantasy, as if they alone could hold off anything that might threaten him.
Underneath all his talk, though, is a river of rage – much of it well earned, issued from a fear-filled past that includes abuse from his own father, criminal activity that earned him a 15-year prison term, dashed dreams of a baseball career and the kind of on-the-job racism that he fights despite the potential risk it poses to his continued employment.
It is when he deals with his two sons, though, that Troy’s rage overflows: Lyons (Russell Hornsby) is his musician son from a previous relationship, while Cory (Jovan Adepo) is his athletically talented son with Rose.
Troy castigates Lyons for wanting to borrow money to play music instead of working for it on his own, a sentiment that anyone can understand. His scorn for Cory, though, involves the boy’s talent for football, which threatens to exceed his own for baseball – and therefore could quash one of the fantasies that ultimately holds Troy together.
Not to worry, though. Troy has enough self-destructive tendencies that will allow him to wreck his happy life all by himself – hurting everyone around him in the process, especially Rose.
Washington and most of his movie’s cast appeared in a 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences,” and they reprise their roles here. Only Adepo as Cory is new. The script they work from was Wilson’s own adaptation, and the movie’s many long speeches betray the movie’s stage-play source.
But Washington knew was he was doing by hiring actors who had starred with him on Broadway. As with many such family dramas, Davis’ Rose is the foundation – and the scene in which she expresses betrayal may well be the movie’s best. The rest of the cast, including Washington himself, is very nearly her equal.
Together, they make Troy’s tale one of the true sad stories of theater. And now film.