In the play's first couple of scenes, Washington pours on the charm. Troy's stories provoke laughter and smiles from his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). At age 53, Troy is a still virile man who appears to genuinely love his wife. And yet, despite the smoldering sexual chemistry that Washington and Davis generate in their roles, there are early signs as to Troy's discontentment with his lot.
Wilson's play begins in the year 1957, and is part of the late playwright's "Century Cycle" of works that chronicle the lives of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century. The era that his characters inhabit affects the choices they make and the opportunities available to them. In this specific case, Troy begrudges the fact that when he was playing baseball in the Negro Leagues, the color barrier had not yet been broken in the sports world. As with all of Troy's stories, however, there's a certain amount of exaggeration to go along with the historical truth of racial discrimination. As Rose points out, by the time Troy established himself as a ballplayer, he was over 40, which is too old to become a Major League player.
Nevertheless, the limited opportunities for black men in professional sports during that time is one of the reasons Troy gives for wanting his teenage son Cory (Chris Chalk) to forget about playing football, and instead to concentrate on his studies so that he can learn a useful trade. But while there may be some genuine fatherly concern in Troy's motivations, there's possibly some jealousy, as well.
Washington has a magnetic stage presence, and conveys loads of information not just through his line delivery, but also via his body language and facial expressions. The charisma he demonstrates early on proves vital, as the bad decisions Troy makes renders the character extremely unsympathetic midway through the second act. Through his actions, Troy loses both the love and respect of those closest to him. And while he may say that he isn't sorry for what he's done because it "felt right in [his] heart," the words ring somewhat hollow, and Washington displays an aching loneliness that is genuinely moving.
Davis also turns in a brilliant performance, full of both subtlety and passion. Her monologue of righteous indignation when Rose discovers that Troy has done her wrong is searing in its intensity and is met with thunderous applause from the audience. Chalk does a good job of balancing Cory's naivete, petulance, anger, and fear as he interacts with his father. As Lyons, Troy's older son from a previous marriage, Russell Hornsby has the slickness of a man who is trying to put something over on you combined with the arrogance of someone who doesn't care if you know it.
Mykelti Williamson does a stellar job in the difficult role of Gabriel, Troy's mentally challenged brother. Rather than emphasizing the nuttier aspects of his character's behavior, Williamson plays the part with urgency and conviction. Henderson generates a strong sense of camaraderie with Washington's Troy, particularly when Bono tries to warn his friend against jeopardizing his marriage by deceiving Rose. Rounding out the cast is the youthful and vibrant Eden Duncan-Smith, as Troy's daughter Raynell (who alternates in the part with SaCha Stewart-Coleman).
The Grammy Award-winning musician Branford Marsalis has composed some wonderfully jazzy original music, which is put to good use in the play. The production also showcases a set from Santo Loquasto that has a rich attention to detail, as well as a superlative lighting design from Brian MacDevitt, who evocatively captures the different hours of the day and night in various scenes, and whose final lighting cue ends the show perfectly.