“There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone.” – August Wilson
Arena Stage’s revival of Two Trains Running, co-Produced with Seattle Reparatory Theater, is a feast of emotion and history.
Pulitzer prize winning playwright August Wilson is famous for his realistic portrayals of quotidian black life in America. Part of the ‘Century Cycle’ – a ten play collection where Wilson wrote one play for every decade of the 20th century –Two Trains Running is a gritty story of hope and hardship in the marginal spaces on the edge of change. Set in a fading black enclave of Pittsburgh in 1969, his characters embody all the damage yet resilience fomented when the human spirit bangs up against poverty and racism. Whether it’s a beans day or a short ribs day, Wilson’s characters don’t stay down after the knockout punch, but stagger back up for one more round.
Performances are outstanding. Director Juliette Carrillo made the creative decision to favor authenticity of conversation, both in rhythm and dialect, over more traditional theatrical enunciation. As a consequence, some dialogue is lost in marble-mouthed tempo. Verisimilitude carries the day. Missing a word or two in exchange for the intimate tone is a worthy fee in a lengthy play. In fact, the moments where silence reigns are among the most impactful.
The action takes place in a down-at-the-heel diner, scheduled for demolition. Eugene Lee plays its pugnacious owner Memphis, wrangling to get a fair price from the city. David Emerson Toney is pitch perfect as armchair philosopher Holloway, a retiree offering the cynicism and mysticism of one who’s been around long enough to have seen it all. Hambone is the mentally ill day laborer, incapable of freeing himself from the grudge of injustice, a role made three-dimensional by Frank Riley III. Rounding out the elders is neighborhood robber-baron and undertaker West (played with greasy elegance by William Hall Jr.), sliding in for coffee between funerals. The jaded seniors recollect the cruelty of racism even as the Civil Rights movement takes flight. Memphis’s retelling of barbaric youthful treatment in Mississippi, which forged his resulting obduracy, is the play’s most riveting moment.
Their youthful counterparts are fresh-out-of-jail Sterling (Carlton Byrd), romantic bookie Wolf (Reginald Andre Jackson), and lone female, Risa (Nicole Lewis), the mysterious waitress marked with self-inflicted scars. The youth offer hope, Sterling and Risa finding a way to push up though the dirt toward new sunlight. While Wilson flirts with the decade’s grand themes, his snapshot focuses on a more intimate portrait. His characters are concerned with finding work, fair pay, and funeral costs. Dr. King is overshadowed by the neighborhood minister. There’s a Malcolm X rally, but Hambone’s agitation for his rightful due after painting a fence dominates diner conversation.
Misha Kachman’s stage is visually delightful, evocative of a sepia-tinted era full of promise, belied by the dialogue within. Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting amplifies the set. Ivania Stack’s costumes are suitably understated, except for the showy retro delights sported by Wolf and Holloway.
Though one of his more upbeat scripts, Wilson doesn’t stint on realism in Two Trains Running. Life is hard. Death is inevitable. But somewhere in the middle there’s a diner full of conversation you’ll want to consume.
Two Trains Running is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s Fichandler stage through April 29, 2018 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: Approximately 3 hours with one 15 minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography