Washington treaded carefully in adapting ‘Fences’ for the silver screen

AP PHOTO This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington, left, and Viola Davis in a scene from, "Fences."

NEW YORK — When August Wilson’s widow first toured the set for the new movie based on his play “Fences,” she carefully examined the modest two-story brick house, the small yard and the tree where a ball hung from a rope — and she wept.

Constanza Romero, who lost her playwright husband in 2005, has visited many theatrical sets for Wilson’s most popular and perhaps most personal play, but the one used for its first film adaptation reconnected her with him.

“It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’m inside August Wilson’s world. This is August Wilson’s world complete,'” Romero recalled. “It was just such a feeling that August’s words had become three-dimensional.”

Romero found herself in tears, trying to catch her breath, when she glanced at Denzel Washington, the film’s director and star. “Oh, I understand,” he told her. “I understand those tears.”

The tears were as much out of relief as gratitude. Adapting Wilson’s masterpiece has taken more than 30 years and it’s easy to see why: It’s a two-hour, dialogue-heavy story rooted in a front yard in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Washington, who won a Tony for his performance in the Broadway revival of “Fences” seven years ago, made some key decisions when he was first tapped to translate the play onto 35 mm film.

First, he reunited five of the main actors from the Broadway revival — himself, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. Then he added up-and-comers Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney.

Then he put them in an actual front yard in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. There would be no Hollywood sound stages this time. Just a worn, small home with plastic-covered furniture in the neighborhood where Wilson grew up.

It seems to have worked. Since opening wide on Christmas, the Paramount release has made $32.4 million, making it one of the more lucrative stage-to-screen adaptations in recent years.