The measure of a successful theatrical adaptation is often how far it can distance itself from the conventions of the stage. The underlying expectation is that untethered from the limitations of sets, the suspension of disbelief, the necessity of projection, the primacy of dialogue, and so on, only then will the play will become a film. But that logic does not explain Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” nor does it explain Denzel Washington’s “Fences.”
August Wilson’s play takes place in the family home and yard of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a ’50s-era Pittsburgh patriarch. The concentrated location makes sense logistically for the stage to minimize scenic design costs, but it also fits thematically for a story so immediately concerned with matters of domestic concern. As Troy works through his past shortcomings, his present stagnation and his future worries for his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and children, his blustering and ruminating does not really work anywhere but his house. Opening it up to other locations or breaking up his long, aimless rambling would distill and distort the very essence of “Fences.”
August Wilson is not alive to see how Denzel Washington tended to the script he left behind (though his estate likely saw to his wishes being met), but he would almost certainly be proud to see how the essence of the theatrical experience remained in tact. “Fences” keeps the power in the word and the performance, leaving many important events shaping their current woes and strife unvisualized. We don’t need flashbacks to show us what an expert line reading can tell us, both about the event and the way its ramifications still affect even the smallest of decisions in their lives.
Washington does more than get out of the way of great acting; he uses the tools of cinema to accentuate it. Camera movement, blocking and distance are deceptively tricky for films requiring a lot of people talking in a finite spice. He uses whatever is necessary to capture the intensity of the performance, and then he delicately adjusts the tempo afterwards with editor Hughes Winborn to calibrate the work of the ensemble to convey Wilson’s timeless thoughts about parental sacrifice, lost glory and enduring legacies.
Martin Scorsese once said, “There’s only one place for the camera. That’s the right place. Where is the right place? I don’t know. You get there somehow.” Denzel Washington got there in “Fences,” somehow. Rewatches will likely illuminate just how he did so. But for now, I’m content to just marvel at Washington and Viola Davis in prime form, as well as to enjoy deeply felt work from supporting players like Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby as Troy’s two sons. B+ /