Review: Washington, Davis powerful in stagey ‘Fences’

Anchored by 2 huge performances, the adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play struggles to overcome theater origins

Adam Graham

“Fences” is an actor’s showcase, a display of sheer ferocity from stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

It’s a small, contained story, but there’s nothing small about its performances. This is acting with a capital A, an episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” brought to life.

Which can be both good and bad. “Fences” is an effective drama, but it feels rigid, its stage origins handicapping its storytelling. Adapted from August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play (Washington and Davis starred in a 2010 Broadway revival), “Fences” feels like a stage production, which comes with a different set of expectations than a film-going experience.

“Fences” stars Washington as Troy Maxson, a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who, after work, likes to have a drink of gin in his backyard with his pal Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson).

It’s there he tells tales of his baseball career that never was — he has a ball tied to a tree that he occasionally takes swings at — and where he lords over his small piece of the American dream like a cross between a preacher, the town crier and the star of an ongoing one-man show. He’s perpetually in the process of building a fence around the property, his way of keeping what’s his inside and everything else out.

Davis is his wife, Rose, who has helped raise their two boys and has done her best to dull the edges of Troy’s worst impulses. Troy’s relationship with his jazz musician son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is strained because Troy thinks he only comes around for money, and his jealousy of his younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and his budding football career boils over into contempt.

The blustery Troy constantly reminds his family that it’s his hard work that puts a roof above their heads and food in their mouths, but there’s more to the story: he gets checks from the government because of war injuries sustained by his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), which stings his pride. And the life Troy has built is in danger of crashing down when his marital infidelity comes to light.

There’s plenty going on, both big and small picture, in “Fences,” which is based on a screenplay Wilson completed before his death in 2005. Washington, directing his third film (and first since 2007’s “The Great Debaters”), goes minimalist in his direction, mostly letting the performances of his cast and Wilson’s words do the talking. Those words don’t need too much extra razzle-dazzle, as Wilson covers the racism of the 1950s, the difficulties of marriage and fatherhood, and the hardships of being a working man in America. But Washington is too tied to the source material, and doesn’t open it up and let it breathe on film. He doesn’t swing for the fences; he bunts.

“You gotta take the crookeds with the straights.” That’s Troy’s personal motto, which he applies to several situations in the film. The same goes for “Fences,” where the crookeds are outweighed by the straights, but they still tarnish the view.

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Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references

Running time: 139 minutes