Theatre Review: Past Productions’ Two Trains Running is A Breathtaking Snapshot of History
Two Trains Running, August Wilson’s play in the Pittsburgh Cycle covering the ’60s is one of the great American plays of the 20th century, by a writer who laid claim to that distinction more often than almost anyone. It gets a presentation equal to the play, directed by Patricia Wallace-Winbush, through Past Productions as part of Columbus’ August Wilson Festival.
Two Trains Running takes place in a diner in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1969, owned by Memphis (Tony Roseboro) negotiating payment for the property from the city, part of a long cycle of displacement and attempted gentrification going back to just after World War II, accelerated by the building of the Civic Arena in the 1950s, and not showing any signs of abating. A small business owner like Memphis has seen the impact first hand. When he talks about the days when tables turned over as soon as someone could get up and he’d go through a whole case of chicken in a weekend, there’s an obvious wistfulness and a clear eye toward where the neighborhood’s going to continue to go. Just as clearly as he sees what’s happening, Memphis has a deserved and hard-won mission to use the property he built and ran successfully for so many years for as much leverage as he can. His “They will meet my price,” is a refrain throughout the play, hopeful and defiant, a demand that he will get the respect he deserves and not compromise it for the government or another business owner, West (Vincent L. Mason), owner of the funeral home down the street and, over the years, much of the property in the district. Roseboro plays this brilliantly, never reducing this important character to one note, working with and implying a whole life.
The other characters around the diner are a cross-section of the neighborhood. Holloway (Truman Winbush Jr.) is a clear-eyed observer, reticent in the face of conflict and wise in a way that gives deference to others, played with remarkable charm and humor by Winbush. Hambone (a fascinating David Johnson), one of Wilson’s apparently mentally disabled characters, is a symbol of how badly people treat other people. In many scenes only saying, “I need my ham,” in reference to a shop-owner across the street, who promised him a ham for doing some work and found excuses to never pay up. Wolf’s (Guy Jones) a low-level numbers runner, a locus for the seedier elements of the Hill, and a focus for hope. Jones gives an astonishing performance as Wolf, a man trying to do a job with as much compassion as he bring to his community and other people without seeming soft.
A hilarious Scott Porter plays Sterling, just out of the penitentiary after servicing five years for a bank robbery, desperate for work and to rebuild but always with an eye on an outsized, reckless dream, whether having his number come in or a wild, persistent love for Memphis’ only employee, Risa (Lisa C. Shepherd). Shepherd’s Risa might be the most fascinating character in the piece, charming and diligent but with a fierce need to keep the world at bay, most obvious outwardly by her legs, scarred from cutting.
Two Trains Running begins with talk of the charismatic Pittsburgh leader Prophet Samuel’s death which has lines around the block to West’s funeral home. Much of the play is largely about what we believe, how much of every prophet is false. Tied into that is wealth, is it possible for someone to be successful over a long period of time without taking advantage of people. There’s a remarkable, hilarious exchange between Roseboro and Winbush as their characters imagine West stealing valuables off corpses, even burying three men “in the same suit,” but the minute Wolf suggests he wouldn’t want West to conduct his funeral, the air shifts, “What do you have against West?” A sense of loyalty between the characters, an empathy even when they act in ways that anger or baffle the others, pervades the atmosphere here. An understanding that people are fallible but systems are the enemy.
There’s no heavy here, even West, with the economic imbalance between he and the rest of the characters and his attempts to borderline-take-advantage of Memphis, is a person using the tools at hand, navigating an atmosphere of loss and terror and finding something good out of it. One of the most remarkable, moving sequences for me is West discussing visiting Aunt Esther (who never appears here but is the thread between the Pittsburgh cycle, a 200+ year old wise woman) after his wife died. Mason plays West clear-eyed about death and what’s left behind, without a lot of faith in superstition or what he doesn’t see and feel in front of him.
As with most of Wilson’s work, this play is about how we, as humans, process what happens with how we talk about it to others and to ourselves, the primacy of story in our lives. Patricia Wallace-Winbush’s direction here is perfect, tight enough to keep this long play moving without ever letting audience attention flag, but with room to let those great lines and these great actors breathe. Every punch and joke lands as hard as it needs to but without anything being belabored. This is a chance to see one of the great plays done as well as you’ll ever see it, I can’t recommend anything higher.
Two Trains Running runs through March 19th with performances at 7:00pm Thursday-Saturday and a 2:00pm matinee on Sunday, March 6th. For tickets and more info, visit http://shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/527