Two Trains Running
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 29, 2006
There are lots of reasons why a play becomes a classic; August Wilson's Two Trains Running feels like one because, among other things, it's filled with timeless wisdom. Consider this advice, given by a miserly old undertaker named Mr. West to a dysfunctionally ambitious ex-con named Sterling:
You can't go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That's all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a little bit in and it's half full. That ten-gallon bucket ain't never gonna be full. Carry you a little cup through life and you'll never be disappointed.
Or this anecdote, from the local numbers-runner, a fellow by the name of Wolf:
I was walking down Centre Avenue...police was chasing somebody and wasn't looking where he was going, and I wasn't looking where I was going either...he ran into me so hard it knocked us both down. I started to get up and there was two, three policemen with their guns pointed at my head. Told me not to move. They arrested me for obstructing justice. Kept me down there for three months before the judge had a chance to throw it out. But I learned a lot from that. I learned to watch where I was going at all times.
Or finally these simple, succinct words to lived by, the watchcry of a gentle survivor called Holloway:
I'm sixty-five years old and I got that way by staying out of people's business...
Wilson's play, set in a humble diner in a dying Pittsburgh neighborhood in 1969, is inhabited by men who have learned hard lessons from hard lives, and aren't ashamed to share what they have or know, and aren't ashamed not to, either, if the situation seems to point that way. The diner belongs to Memphis, a terribly proud man who was run off his Mississippi farm by white racists some thirty years before; he's built up a modest business and is now battling the city—which wants to buy him out so they can tear down the building—for a fair price.
Into the diner one day comes Sterling, who has just been released from the penitentiary after serving five years for a bank robbery. Sterling wants a job but the economics of this Pittsburgh neighborhood are bleak and there's no work to be found. Sterling also wants to win over Risa, Memphis's sole employee, a woman whose tough life has caused her to shut down emotionally. Can Sterling, who is learning empowerment as a way to channel his rage from the activist followers of the late Malcolm X, find his way in a hostile world and bring Risa along with him? Or will he be held back by the shadows of a sad past—a past embodied by Memphis, Holloway, Wolf, West, and Hambone, the play's saddest character, an itinerant worker who was cheated out of his wages years ago by a store owner named Lutz and who now haunts his one-time employer, day in and day out?
Wilson's answer here might surprise you; whether it does or not, the insights into human nature in general, and an African American ethos in particular, are stirring and deep. Two Trains Running is almost Chekhovian in its structure, with very little actually happening as its characters pursue dreams and desires, impossible and otherwise, in little reveries of their own and in occasional joyful bursts of collegiality. What's prime here, ultimately, is a sense of people being in the world together even as they feel entirely alone; a strong current of faith in something larger than oneself, represented mainly here by Wilson's legendary creation of Aunt Ester, a healer of indeterminate (but very old) age, runs through the piece and gives it a solemn heft. Wilson's writing is funny and warm and constantly astonishing—is he not the most versatile poet produced by the American theatre in the last four of five decades?
Lou Bellamy's production of this play for Signature Theatre Company's August Wilson season is gorgeous. The design elements are strikingly realistic, providing invaluable context for the play's milieu (credit goes to Derek McLane for the set, Matthew J. Lefebvre for the costumes, Robert Wierzel for the lighting, and Brett R. Jarvis for the sound, which includes—unusually for a Wilson play—practically no music at all: these characters, at various ends of their ropes, aren't given to song and dance).
The cast is splendid, with two extraordinary performances anchoring the play. Arthur French, so long one of our theatre's invaluable supporting players, makes Holloway the touching center of Two Trains Running, providing much of the evening's humor, both warm-hearted and bitingly caustic, and creating such a strong bond with the other actors on stage that at one point I was moved nearly to tears. The much younger actor Ron Cephas Jones is French's match as Wolf, a role he seems perfectly suited to: he shows us not only the insouciance and bravado that are this man's protective shell, but all of the wounded complications underneath.
Sharing the stage with these two fine actors are Frankie Faison as Memphis, Leon Addison Brown as Hambone, Chad L. Coleman as Sterling, and Ed Wheeler as West, all of them delivering expert performances. The lone woman in the cast is January Lavoy, who is splendid as Risa, capturing the depth and complexity of a woman with much to give but almost no outlets for her gifts.
With their earlier masterful rendition of Seven Guitars, Signature's Two Trains Running is an utterly appropriate tribute to Wilson, who died much too soon a year ago, and a tremendous offering to New York City's audiences, who are being given the chance not just to experience these plays once again but to really engage with them and the seemingly limitless spirit of their remarkable creator.