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Denzel Washington is fine in ‘Fences,’ but Viola Davis … wow

4th in a series of blogs on Atlanta director Kenny Leon before the Tonys. See a profile of Leon in Living on Saturday.

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

New York — Denzel Washington gets an enormous movie-star-in-our-midst ovation at the opening of the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences,” but it doesn’t take Viola Davis long to command the audience’s attention and applause.

Washington gives a fine, multilayered performance in the blustery lead role of Troy Maxson, the Negro League slugger who winds up as a Pittsburgh garbage man, but in a quieter part, Davis is the one you immediately can’t take your eyes off of. Both are nominated for lead acting prizes at Sunday night’s Tony Awards, and it’s easy to see why in this star-powered production directed by Atlanta’s Kenny Leon.

I’m not a critic, but I was an audience member Thursday night, and as the packed house poured out onto the sidewalk after the drama let out of the Court Theatre, many fellow patrons were marveling about Davis’ performance.

In the first act’s first scene, which is all showy big guy talk between Maxson and his buddy Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, also nominated for best supporting actor), Davis, as Maxson’s patient and wise wife Rose, helps the audience figure out what to make of her contentious, funny husband. Some of it’s in Wilson’s dialogue, but a lot of it is in Davis’ eyes and changing expressions.

By act two, when her 18-year marriage to Troy is revealed to be a tragic sham, she seizes the stage with an intensity that singes. She quite literally gets spitting mad in dressing down Troy how he’s failed her. It’s a riveting performance, and Washington is terrific in playing his most muted notes in conveying Troy’s (not particularly apologetic) disgrace.

Before an understudy rehearsal Thursday afternoon, production stage manager Narda Alcorn told Leon that Washington didn’t want to walk the Tony Awards red carpet Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall, but that Davis couldn’t wait. Leon laughed about Washington and said he bet the star would nonetheless come out to shine before the cameras, and that he wasn’t surprised Davis was excited.

Davis, a Tony winner (for Wilson’s “King Hedley II”) and one-time Academy Award nominee (“Doubt”), has already racked up a number of honors for “Fences.”

Something tells me her camera time Sunday won’t be limited to the red carpet.

One comment Add your comment

Georgia Girl

June 11th, 2010
10:54 am

I had the pleasure of seeing the play Memorial Weekend at the Cort theater and I must say that Viola Davis’ performace left my husband and I in awe. In addition to the other actors. Denzel is already in a class by himself and the set was awesome!! Kudos to Kenny Leon, you’ve done it again. My husband and I also had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Davis, Mykelti, and the young man that played Denzel’s son Cory. They were all “down to earth” and not your traditional “hollywood” types. I can’t wait until the show travels because I want my children to see it as well.