In true August Wilson form, each character in Two Trains Running has a distinct style, function and purpose. Set in 1969, the characters frequent a run-down diner, that might actually offer half its menu on a good day. The rest of the time, the characters gather to get news, coffee, socialize and peer out the window to catch the latest goings-on across the street at the really happening spot—a funeral home.
Jefferson A. Russell anchors the piece as restaurant owner Memphis, whose experience growing up in the South establishes the play’s title. He knows there are two trains that run to Mississippi where his family was cheated out of land, and he vows someday to go back and claim it. Michael Anthony Williams is superb as Holloway, offering tidbits of information like a busy gadfly. He has a distinctive old-school delivery that’s irresistible. KenYatta Rogers is a hoot as the numbers runner, Wolf, giving him a rooster-like strut and expressive lingo and mannerisms.
Ricardo Frederick Evans plays Sterling as a free-style youth, recently released from incarceration, looking for a hand rather than a handout, but with conditions. Instead of taking any job, he hedges his bets on playing the numbers and listens intently to Holloway’s suggestion to visit the elder healer woman, Aunt Ester, who will turn his luck and life around if he believes.
Uttering only a few basic words, Frank Britton establishes a thoroughly convincing Hambone, a feeble minded character so racked by an unjustifiable slight that he’s retreated into a shell-shocked monosyllabic rant of “I Want My Ham!”
Risa is and always has been a tough character to understand—she shares next to nothing about herself, the most revealing tidbits come from hearsay dropped by the other characters. Her self-mutilation speaks volumes about her self-regard, but she holds her own under the constantly reprimanding Memphis who admonishes her and anybody else who will listen to do the right things, right. Risa has a comfort level with Memphis, and seems to have ultra job security. Shannon Dorsey’s Risa is probably softer and more mild mannered than I would expect in the role.
Director Timothy Douglas has channeled the ancestors in relaying the salient messages with an easy going style and elegant naturalism.
Stellar set design by Tony Cisek establishes all of the spatial elements in the story and then some. There’s the classic dining counter and assorted tables, but the added touch consists of two semi-circle padded booths that flank the door, providing comfy spots where characters can tuck into while still in full view of the audience for side commentary and reactions.
August Wilson scholars offer volumes of research about the ultimate meanings and references in his plays including Two Trains. The ageless Aunt Ester binds the characters to the soil and sea, some even reflect on the Middle Passage when she invokes all who seek her guidance to throw money in the river. Through the progression of the play, Memphis balks and refuses to do anything so stupid, but relents in the second act which has a more transformational tone. It’s in the second act where all of the characters have to sort out their own restitution to get up and get to moving.
Case in point, for nearly a decade, Hambone bitterly demands restitution for a job he performed, and represents Everyman’s loud clarion call for justice. Douglas’s direction is exquisite in representing Hambone’s final passage, and Britton relays more in those few wordless moments than with pages of text, but it’s still a sad commentary on the powerless masses who can only howl at injustice.
The play is filled with so much guilt and demand for restitution that without bits of humor, it could get bogged down in pity and caricature. Parallel to Hambone’s demand to be paid his just due is the diner owner Memphis’s quest for a decent price from the city for his property. The script includes prolific and bountiful spraying of salty, coarse language and of course the “N-word.” It can be tough to sit through, were it not for the life-affirming language, rich cultural references and dramatic insights that fill the script.
TWO TRAINS RUNNING
Closes May 4, 2014
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The gist of the play consists of narrative stories either delivered as monolog or asides delivered by characters about each other, with limited action. That makes for a long sitting, but the end result is worth it. Wilson covers immense swatches of socially conscientious territory in Two Trains and he takes time to wrestle with issues that resurface throughout the rest of the “Pittsburg Cycle.” With Douglas at the helm who doesn’t make a false move, and the stellar cast, this production can match the best of them.
There was a time when mounting an August Wilson production in Montgomery County would have been a tough proposition because of limited attention to culturally diverse issues outside of the metro area. With this production, we can safely be assured that those old days are as long gone and put to rest as the Prophet Samuel in Two Trains Running.
Two Trains Running by August Wilson . Directed by Timothy Douglas . Featuring Frank Britton, Doug Brown, Shannon Dorsey, Ricardo Frederick Evans, KenYatta Rogers, Jefferson A. Russell, and Michael Anthony Williams . Scenic design: Tony Cisek . Costume design: Reggie Ray . Lighting design: Dan Covey . Sound design: Matthew M. Nielson . Props master: Pamela Weiner. Stage manager: Bekah Wachenfeld . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.