You don’t have to know anything about August Wilson or his Pittsburgh play cycle, or even Pittsburgh itself, to get a lot out of Arena Stage’s top-notch production of Two Trains Running. But you do have to be patient.
At three hours long and not a minute less, Two Trains, directed by Juliette Carrillo, will test the attention span of some theatregoers — avoid alcohol and caffeine. Those with the endurance for that, however, will leave feeling truly grateful for the experience. At that runtime, things get the opportunity to blossom verrrrry slowly. Humor and wisdom, you’ll be glad to hear, are offered right away, like welcome gifts. Hope and redemption? Those you have to work for.
It’s 1969, and life for the Hill District’s black citizens is a struggle. The city is buying up property left and right with the intention of tearing it down. Ain’t no work to be had for those looking for an honest job. And the only man who seems to be making money hand over fist? The undertaker.
Diner owner Memphis (Eugene Lee), who was Jim Crow’d out of Mississippi decades ago, and his kind-if-unknowable waitress Risa (Nicole Lewis) are still filling the coffee mugs for a small handful of regulars, even as Memphis is headed for a crash course in imminent domain with the city of Pittsburgh. There’s Holloway (David Emerson Toney), a voice of reason and font of local knowledge at age 65. There’s Wolf (Reginald Andre Jackson), running numbers while balancing seven or eight girlfriends. There’s Hambone (Frank Riley III), a mentally challenged symbol of justice denied, and there’s West (William Hall, Jr.), the black-gloved reminder that all roads end in death. And new to the lunch counter is Sterling (Carlton Byrd), a recently released convict with materialistic dreams falling off of him like snow.
All of the performances are good, but especially all of them. Seriously. Pretty much everyone gets a bellowing monologue or two (they all crush them), but this is also a stage full of A+ listeners. Ensemble awards, look no further.
Done in conjunction with Arena Stage’s sister theatre in Seattle, this Two Trains makes a great case for bicoastal co-productions. Misha Kachman’s set is the best use of the Fichandler’s in-the-round space I’ve ever seen. Ivania Stack’s costumes feel just right — all the right things fit perfectly, or don’t. Normally I find moody underscoring unnecessary and distracting, but sound designer David R. Molina manages to walk a very fine line.
All of this bolsters Wilson’s script, which ebbs and flows with dramatic tension while never feeling less than true to reality. Plotlines grow and twist together like vines, getting stronger as they develop. But Carrillo’s direction keeps you guessing as to which way things are heading: Both farce and deadly tragedy always feel as close and easy to grasp as your soup spoon. Rare are the plays that feel like real life; rarer still are the ones that feel truly alive.
I’ll say it as simply as I can: Don’t miss this train.