The late PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill called August Wilson "the American Shakespeare," but one might just as well say that the great edifice of Wilson's most enduringly celebrated play, “Fences,” stands at the intersection of Shakespeare and Steinbeck. One of two Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas in Wilson’s brilliant 10-play "Pittsbugh Cycle," the 1950s-set “Fences” masterfully combines Shakespeare's poetry, Steinbeck's style of realist symbolism and their mutual gift of well-rounded character.
As directed by and starring Denzel Washington, in a film adaptation that springs from Kenny Leon's 2010 smash hit Broadway revival, “Fences” is an American classic writ large. And "large" is the operative word, not only in the traditional sense of "opening up" a play's action (which Washington does by using both interiors and actual exteriors, including scenes of garbage men at work and neighborhood children at play) but in the depiction of main character, Troy Maxon, originated by the imposing James Earl Jones in the initial 1987 Broadway run. Troy's wife Rose (Viola Davis) refers to him, at one point, as "so big," and he certainly is.
As a husband and father, he's a nightmare of never-wrong authoritarianism. He's a study in pride and bluster, delusion and deception. He's an iconic American character to stand beside Stanley Kowalski and Willy Loman, casting shadows every bit as long in desperate striving and crushing defeat. And just about as juicy a role as Washington has seen on screen, which is saying something. Washington rises to the occasion, even as he more than respectably commands the director's chair.
As for Rose's duties, she's bound to the sacrificial homemaker role of her time in cooking, doing the laundry, and managing the household income -- the last a source of tension as she referees between Troy and his elder son Lyons, played by Russell Hornsby.
Troy's old friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) warily keeps a jaded eye on Troy's extramarital flirtations, which Bono expects to blossom into betrayal, while Rose understandably chooses, consciously re-committing each day, to see the best in her husband. The story's walking wild card comes in the form of Troy's war-traumatized younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), the play's trumpet-wielding, accidentally prophetic holy fool ("Better get ready for the judgement!").
In this uniformly excellent cast, Washington and Davis give the towering performances (Davis' tear-shedding, knee-buckling aria of broken dreams all but guarantees her long-deserved Oscar), but Williamson, Henderson, and Hornsby expertly modulate their stage performances for the screen. It's also fair to say that the film's defiant theatricality is a double-edged sword: it's hard to imagine a more faithful adaptation of Wilson's play, but many will reject like a bad organ the film's wall-to-wall talk and theatrical flourishes (Rose is not the only character whose knees buckle in an emotional collapse).
This story of one man's precipitous descent, letting everyone who matters slip through his fingers on the way down, also has a timely titular metaphor. Troy sees some kind of self-defensive solution in laboring to build a literal fence around his property over the course of the story, but as Bono notes, "Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in."