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 Wilson's two Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas (the other being The Piano Lesson) in his brilliant ten-play "Pittsbugh Cycle," the 1950s-set Fences masterfully combines, in its theatrical idiom, 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 smash hit 2010 Broadway revival (with five cast members reprising their roles), 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 garbagemen 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. King Kong aint got shit on him, so to speak. His dashed dreams of a baseball career prompt from him resentful comments like "Jackie Robinson wasn't nobody" and "Hank Aaron ain't nothing," and 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. An ex-con as well as a would-be baseball star, Troy works for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Refuse, and still regularly blames racism—although Rose cites his age—for killing his baseball dreams (a just-as-regular stickball game Troy must pass through on his way home from work blithely mocks him). Not even death is a big enough force to cow Troy into humility ("all death is to me...a fastball on the outside corner"). Troy's insecurity, stubbornness, charm, and intimidation rise to a level suggesting dormant insanity may climactically break through, even as Troy clings to his notion of masculinity for his own self-worth and the supposed benefit of his son. "A man's gotta do what's right for him," Troy insists, by way of total justification. Elsewhere, he hurts his 17-year-old son Cory (Jovan Adepo) by arguing that father's care for son isn't the result of something irrelevant like love or even affection, but rather of "a man"'s dutiful responsibility.
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 (from a previous marriage) Lyons, played by Russell Hornsby. A well-crafted early argument beween Troy and Lyons about the proper allocation of money engagingly allows us to see how Troy isn't entirely wrong in his neighing horse sense, while hardly being entirely right, either. Rose's default empathy, her blessing and curse, is also the joy and pain of being Troy's husband: his charm is not to be underestimated, but neither is it to be trusted. 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 for the state of our Trumpland "union." 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." When one character passes and Gabriel exults, "It's time to tell St. Peter to open up the gates," he evokes heaven's fence, but the earthbound Gabriel's trumpet won't blow so easily. Salvation isn't guaranteed.