A big part of the charm of the works of August Wilson is how very ordinary his characters are, and that’s never been more true than in “Two Trains Running,” running at The Rep now.
Set in a diner in The Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh – home for the powerful Pittsburgh Cycle – Trains grabs hold of a universal black experience and shakes it until all the leaves and fruits from this particular tree fall to the ground.
The ambitious ten-play Cycle traces the black experience through ten decades, telling the stories not with the soaring language and emotional punch of the black power movement but rather with a look deep into the soul of black people told through ordinary, everyday ambitions and frustrations.
Memphis (Raymond Anthony Thomas)runs a diner that used to be a hectic hub for neighborhood sustenance and gossip. But the building Memphis owns is slated for demolition to pave the way for reimagined “development” guided by the city. His quarrel with the city involves how much the city is offering for the building and how much Memphis thinks it’s really worth.
The focus on money, desired and promised, runs through the play.
Sterling (Chiké Johnson) is just released from the penitentiary after serving five years for robbing a bank. He need a job and money, to live and to gamble with, hoping for the easy win and the big promise.
West (Doug Brown) is the funeral director has lots of money and is continually scheming to get more. He’s got seven Cadillacs and a flourishing business and is trying to buy the dinner with a cut-rate offer.
Wolf (Jefferson A. Russell) is a numbers runner who uses the diner as his office, complete with pay phone where he takes orders from the hopeful who are playing the lottery.
Then there is Holloway (Michael Anthony Williams) a neighborhood wise man, who has the key to getting wishes filled (the unseen Aunt Audrey) and who comments/explains/approves/disapproves on both motivations and actions of neighborhood. Holloway is the holder of the Aunt Audrey secret and acts as her off-site agent.
Throw into this mess the daily visit from Hambone (Frank Britton) driven almost insane by his nine and a half year search for a ham he thinks a storekeeper owes him fo painting a fence. “He won’t give me my ham,” wails Hambone, over and over. He’s made his pitch every day for nine and a half years and is as regular as the clock ticking inexorably on the wall.
Reigning over this testosterone charged gathering is Risa (Malkia Stampley) a complicated waitress/cook at the diner who is torn by debilitating doubt and bolstered by unbridled confidence all at the same time.
Mr. Wilson’s play is full of monologues from each of the characters, speeches that define the indefinable hopes that live deep in their souls.
West guards his money. Memphis wants money for his building. Holloway needs money to play the numbers. West handles the money. Sterling wants quick money, the easy way.
If you are beginning to sense a theme here, congratulations. It’s a theme.
Risa is the most interesting and oddly balanced character in the play.
She has cut her legs, disfiguring them, as a barrier to unwanted attention from men. She maintains a perfectly satisfied life of solo control over her life and has pledged her fear and determination to avoid all men.
But Ms. Stampley has created a well-rounded Risa and we suspect that there are layers underneath that all that solemnity.
Like most of Mr. wilson’s works, this one relies on the interchange between members of the ensemble. There are no stars or leading actors here. There are seven skilled and brilliant actors flourishing under the direction of Timothy Douglas.
The Rep has staged six of the plays in Mr. Wilson’s American Century Cycle and it’s a fervent hope that the other four will soon find spots on the schedule. The Milwaukee company his a dedicated commitment to diversity in programming and a commitment to Mr. Wilson would fit well in that mission.
Production credits: Director, Timothy Douglas; Scenic Designer, Tony Cisek; Costume Designer, kara Harmon; Lighting Designer, Michael Gilliam; Composer/Sound Designer, Matthew M. Nelson; New York Casting, Stephanie Klapper, CSA; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus’ Production Photographer, Mikki Schaffner.