We’re seeing some less frequently produced Wilson plays in Washington this season: “Jitney” now at Arena Stage and, later there, “Seven Guitars.” But also back on the boards: the historically crowd-pleasing “Fences,” in an unsatisfyingly mild revival at Ford’s Theatre. Only three years have passed since a widely heralded film version starring Denzel Washington won an Oscar for Viola Davis, as long-suffering wife Rose. Given the fresh memory of that nearly definitive movie version, this latest stage entry, directed by Timothy Douglas, feels like an anticlimax.
The broad appeal of “Fences” can probably be traced to its pure melodramatic roots; the original 1987 production ran on Broadway for more than a year. This story of a garbageman in 1957 Pittsburgh is anchored to a transparent Oedipal formula and clunky conceits such as a mentally disabled, horn-blowing character named, uh, Gabriel. Its glory is its towering central character, one Troy Maxson, an unbowed oak of a man thwarted by racism and squandered talent and originally played on Broadway by James Earl Jones. Who is, of course, a tower all by himself.
At Ford’s, Troy is played by Craig Wallace, an actor of impressive Washington pedigree. But he is an artist of too-refined instinct for this thunderingly earthy titan, who wields his grievances as weapons against Rose (here portrayed by Erika Rose) and son Cory (Justin Weaks). You have to believe in the explosive rage that boils at all times in Troy for the play to hold you for its nearly three hours. But Wallace is an actor of reflection rather than of potential menace. A man who once pulled a knife on a robbery victim and served 15 years in prison and betrayed both his incapacitated brother and his wife? I don’t think so.
As a result, this “Fences” inches along, seeming talky and lackluster. Lauren Helpern has devised a visually striking set, giving us the Maxsons’ modest brick house and backyard in isolation, as if they exist in a universe apart. In a sense, they do: This is the universe in which Troy reigns, and the fence that Rose has him forever building around their property is a metaphor that defines the family’s struggle. No Maxson, it seems, is able to erect any sort of structure that can both confine the others and satisfy their own needs.
We’ve long waited for Erika Rose, another fine Washington mainstay, to take on a role as big and emotionally expansive as Wilson’s Rose. We eagerly anticipate that bravura scene in Act 2, when Troy confesses his devastating transgression, with all the flesh-and-blood implications of what he’s done, but the rawness of the moment isn’t fully activated. Something essential is held back in Rose’s response, and the cry from the soul we’re expecting fails to be powerfully expressed. The admirably muted qualities of Rose Maxson’s personality are capably revealed; it’s that vital releasing of her equilibrium, and the venting of her anguish, that we don’t experience.
Weaks’s brooding Cory, on the other hand, is a complete portrait of boyhood trying to break free of oppressive parental restraint. He’s terrifically, tightly wound in the play’s predictable dramatic confrontation late in Act 2, when the cornered Troy is challenged by his son. He’s even better in the final scene, after he returns to Pittsburgh as an adult and faces trying to put his bitterness behind him.
Doug Brown, KenYatta Rogers and Jefferson A. Russell provide workmanlike portrayals of Troy’s best friend, Troy’s elder son and the horn-blowing Gabriel, respectively, with Brown doing an especially good job of showing us how the friend, Jim Bono, navigates in Troy’s big shadow. But the dry spells on this evening, unfortunately, tend to reveal some of the holes in Wilson’s “Fences.”
Fences, by August Wilson. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Set, Lauren Helpern; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Andrew R. Cissna; sound, Nick Hernandez. With Janiyah Lucas, Mecca Rogers. About 2 hours 50 minutes. $17-$72. Through Oct. 27 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 202-347-4833. fords.org.