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Fences and Lion



FENCES. I usually approach theater with trepidation, not for any particular dislike of the medium or the material or the setting, but because I more often than not find myself mortified on behalf of the actors. I don't judge them for their decisions or missteps. Rather, I over-empathize, assuming that their misreading of the material, their flawed timing or intonation, would bring them as much shame and humiliation as it would me. On the one hand, that's why I don't act. On the other, this is an indicator of the talent and long hours of study and hard work required to bring a play to life on stage. Whereas a sharp director with a practiced editor by her side could coax a compelling movie performance out of almost anybody, given enough time and space, the stage provides no room to hide. It's sheer naked performance, whatever the method, and once the actor starts saying the words, that is all there is.

For the sake of full disclosure, I've rarely seized the opportunity to see high-caliber theater, as emotionally scarred as I was in childhood by its local and regional variants. I'll also freely admit that a life-long passion for movies has, most likely permanently, skewed my perspective. Still, I do feel free to say that cinematic adaptations of stage plays are and have always been problematic at best. The big musical productions of the '50s and '60s (to which I'll add last year's brilliant La La Land, maybe more on that later) worked because they could heighten the effect of a Broadway show with Cinemascope and Technicolor and moving cameras and even more elaborate sets. But if, like me, you don't generally care for song and dance routines, you're right back where you started from. And the Mamet adaptations, and those of their ilk, can just as easily rob the dialogue of the vital energy that propelled them onstage.

So, Fences. An August Wilson play that won a bunch of Tony awards in its first run in 1987, it was revived in 2010 with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the leads (which they reprise here), at which point it re-upped on the awards. Wilson then adapted it as a screenplay, Washington was attached as director (I can't swear to that order of operations) and the final product now plays nationwide.

Troy (Washington) and Rose Maxson (Davis) live in a little house in Pittsburgh. Troy works on a garbage crew. They have a teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy has a much older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a previous relationship. Friday nights after work, Troy likes to have some gin in the backyard and unwind, preparing on Saturday to construct a backyard fence for Rose. This process, we gather, repeats ad infinitum and the actual fence may never be finished. But in the little house, which Troy bought with money awarded his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) after being disabled in the war, there are walls aplenty. Troy's frustration at his inability to move up or forward boil over into misplaced anger at Cory and Rose. Rose reacts with truthfully righteous indignation and we watch as a family falls apart while maintaining the appearance of structural integrity.

A few things are undeniable: The cast here, Davis and Washington especially, puts on a clinic. Their performances are faultless and raw and multifaceted; they wring life out of long speeches that would leave most actors gasping. Likewise the supporting cast, including Williamson, Stephen Henderson and Adepo. (Though, to be honest, there isn't all that much material left for them once the leads are done with it.) Washington, as director, tries for a subtle combination of atmosphere and faithfulness to the play, constructing a world slightly bigger than a theater set wherein the action can take place. He's sparing and deliberate with his camera moves, most often lingering on medium shots and close-ups, creating a sense of cultivated naturalism that almost works perfectly. And the material itself — the words — builds characters and story with awesome force. It's not an easy thing to illuminate the inner lives of characters through long passages of dialogue — much less monologue — and have it play well onscreen, but Wilson's script does just that.

It might have benefitted me not to know that Fences is an adaptation: Taken on its own merits, it is a distinct and powerful work. But it also feels like a play that's been photographed. PG13. 139m.

LION. I've left myself precious little room, so I'll have to skip directly to effusiveness. This tells the story of a 5-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar, maybe the most adorable child I have ever seen in a movie), who becomes separated from his older brother far from their rural home. He accidentally rides a train far into another province where, unable to speak the language, he ends up living on the street. Eventually he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and grows up to be a strong, ambitious young man (Dev Patel). During a dinner with friends from hotel management school, though, he realizes he has compartmentalized the circumstances of his adoption. Subsequently overcome by guilt and despair, Saroo drops out of his life, spending days on the couch with Google Earth on the laptop, trying to retrace his own steps.

While slow, even lugubrious in the early going, as Lion moves along it becomes clear that the pacing is critical to establishing the movie's tone. It sets a backdrop for a devastating, nuanced performance by Patel, who shows us what his character is feeling with profound depth, often wordlessly. Rooney Mara likewise excels as the significant other displaced by his grief.

A small, deliberate, beautiful thing, Lion feels meaningful without pandering. It may well make you cry (it did me). And oh yeah, it's a true story. PG13. 118m.

— John J. Bennett

*Broadway and Mill Creek listings were not available at press time. For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.


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