Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fences by August Wilson (1987)

Personal photo:  Fences at The Cort Theatre.  1 May 2010.
Summary:  The play takes place in front of 53 year-old Troy Maxon's house.  Alternately, Troy has conversations with his friend Bono, his wife Rose, his sons Cory and Lyons and his mentally disabled brother Gabriel.  Through these interactions, Troy's life story is revealed including a distant past that involves a previous marriage and prison time, and a current affair with a woman named Alberta.  Spliced throughout these interactions are Troy's monologues about facing death and direct-address to Death...staying that whenever He comes, Troy will be waiting.  Ultimately, the family finds themselves back in the front yard preparing for Troy's funeral--eight years after the start of the play.

  This was my second read of this play, and in the middle of my readings I was fortunate enough to see the Kenny Leon-directed production starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (who both won Tony Awards for their performances).  While I really liked the play the first time, the second read was infused with the voices of Washington and Davis.  Much like the Jimmy Stewart effect on Harvey, my memories of the performance greatly enhanced my second reading experience.

Our seats were about three rows from the back of the theatre (photo above taken from my seat); but the work of Davis and Washington was palpable throughout the entire space.  The audience was at least 85% black...and very vocally responsive to the action on stage.  When Troy confesses his affair, there was a collective gasp in the audience.  Moments later when he reveals that he has no plans to stop seeing Alberta because she makes him feel something, there were groans and clucking noises of disbelief and judgment.  At the climax of his revelations, he informs Rose that Alberta is pregnant.  At this point, a woman in the orchestra section loudly shouted, "Get him!" to Rose onstage.  While reading this scene, I vividly remembered not only these outbursts but the effect that having to hold for these responses had on the rhythm of the scene.

Although The New York Times had positively reviewed Washington's performance, I was skeptical.  Struggling actor friends had expressed their displeasure with the fact that two very successful film actors were taking Broadway jobs that could have been given to actors who actually needed the money.  Moments before the production began, my friend Nick gave voice to my own skepticism.  He said, "I mean....yes...Denzel is a good actor, but I feel like I am always seeing a different version of him instead of an actual character."  Fifteen minutes into the play, we both knew that this was performance was different.  The only time I felt like I was watching Denzel Washington was when he entered for the first time and the swoons of the audience overpowered the action on stage.  Otherwise, the performances of both Washington and Davis were so powerful that I literally held my breath during each of their longer monologues.
Personal photo:  Fences with Nick and Ryan at The Cort Theatre.  1 May 2010.
"Some people build fences to keep people out...
and other people build fences to keep people in." 

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