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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Two Trains Running — Arden Theatre

two trains -- interiorAugust Wilson is as much an historian and anthropologist as he is a playwright. His plays center on people, as all good plays do, but evoke the cultural and social structure of the decades they represent.

“Two Trains Running,” set in 1969 and, as all Wilson’s plays are, in Pittsburgh, depicts a changing time between the established traditions and standards of one generation, born in the first 20 years of the 20th century, usually in the South, and the upcoming one, born in the 40s and seeing life in a different, and more precarious light because change is afoot, and American life is less predictably cut-and-dried. The men who frequent Memphis’s Leo’s Diner, on Wylie Street in the black Hill District in Pittsburgh aren’t concerned with current events surrounding Vietnam, the cultural revolution, Richard Nixon becoming President, the moon landing, Chappaquiddick, or even the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, who is noted only marginally. Race, survival against individual obstacles, and the responsibilities of manhood are the main topics of conversation. Who one is and how one takes care of himself in light of racism, neighborhood politics, government interference, government neglect, and being a black man at a time when civil rights is having an altering effect, opportunity is slowly opening, and racial relations are seen through the prism of heightened awareness and self-consciousness of whites and blacks. Dr. King is mentioned in regard to race issues, but the leader who gets the most attention is another assassinated figure, Malcolm X. It is Malcolm who is discussed and quoted, particularly by Sterling, recently released from the penitentiary. It is Malcolm and others such as James Baldwin, we see and hear between scenes in Raelle Myrick-Hodges’s terse, well-acted production of “Two Trains Running” at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre.

Each of Wilson’s characters have taken a different path, two of them Sterling and the neighborhood numbers runner, Wolf, as the youngest, having a long road ahead of them, and each has a different attitude towards life. The lone woman in the show, played so well you can’t tell acting is taking place by Lakisha May, is on to the boasting and blathering of men. She has purposely scarred her legs to keep them at a distance. A second, unseen woman is the ubiquitous psychic Aunt Esther, age 312, mentioned in this and several Wilson plays but seen only in “Gem of the Ocean.” She is important in her absence because of the way she influences Sterling and “Two Trains’s” most collected go-with-the flow character, Holloway.

There is no actual lead performer in “Two Trains Running.” It is an ensemble piece, and Myrick-Hodges directs it as such, giving each of the characters time and space to reveal him- or herself and letting the drama come through via the passion with which someone states a case or the drama a specific sequence, whether it’s about getting a job or receiving a fair shake, dictates.

The characters represent several walks of life. Memphis, the owner of Leo’s, a name he kept when he bought the diner decades before “Two Trains” begins, parallels the numerous black and immigrant people who came to a new place and created a thriving business. He isn’t the rich or flashy entrepreneur that West, the Hill’s undertaker and purveyor of all things funereal, is. He’s the guy who opened a shop or luncheonette and did well by it without doing much more than making a comfortable living with some savings to tide him over.

Memphis knows how hard he’s worked to preserve Leo’s and keep it thriving as a Hill gathering place. He is aware of what it takes to maintain a business and pay one’s way through non-stop labor and management. Throughout “Two Trains” he will bark orders to May’s Risa, his cook, waitress, and go-fer to make sure things are going to his liking and to assert how much he’s in charge. Memphis is a practical man who has fought to keep what he has and has little patience for people of any race with don’t strive and get to work each day to be independent and keep their business, whatever that business is, going and profitable. He is particularly disdainful of Wolf, working with racketeers to run a mostly upstanding-though-illegal numbers game Memphis objects to because it siphons wages from dreamer’s pockets. He tells Wolf to cease using his telephone as a way to write numbers and to be careful about using his tables for his enterprise. Memphis also looks askance at Sterling. It is not uncommon for various reasons for a young black man to have a prison record, but Memphis doesn’t see Sterling as maturing or reforming and doesn’t feel warm or sympathetic towards a guy with a short fuse he thinks will most likely land back in jail.

Sterling has more to him than Memphis notices, something Memphis might realize if he wasn’t preoccupied by the city of Pittsburgh trying to claim his restaurant via eminent domain laws to build a highway or new structure that is about to decimate and already declining Hill District. Memphis is not only miffed about the city’s incursion but the idea that he may not get fair value for the property he has maintained and that has sustained him and his late wife for so many years.

Sterling, for all his bravado, is smart. He also, unlike the older Memphis or Holloway, has grown up in the midst of the civil rights movement and has a different, more pointed kind of racism to face in a more integrated world than they did when racial lines were more clearly drawn. Memphis made his way by creating a necessary and popular business in a black area that is losing such businesses. Holloway worked for a living and has the easygoing, philosophical personality that keeps him relatively untouched by societal events. Both men came from miserable lives in the South to make their way in Pittsburgh. They have led honest, productive lives that, once again, are reflective of other minority newcomers to American cities in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

Young men like Sterling and Wolf aren’t happy about the jobs in the mills that suited Holloway, assuming they could attain such jobs thanks to a Catch-22 game the unions and personnel clerks play, or becoming business owners like the straightforward Memphis or the more opulent, financially astute, and power-wielding West. They also don’t mull much on going to college, enlisting in the military, or even worrying about the draft. They are looking for the easy dollar based on luck or working for or with mobsters. Wolf’s numbers are likely to grow to drug dealing at some point. Sterling wants a stake to come to him by miracle so he can marry the teasing but uninterested Risa, buy a house, then settle into some sort of respectability. Then you have Hambone, who is mentally deficient and has always been challenged by life but who goes over the edge on a day when he is promised a ham in exchange for painting a butcher’s wall, is cheated by received some chicken parts instead, and comes every day to the butcher’s and to Memphis’s muttering solely and continuously “I want my ham.” Risa takes pity or Hambone, and Sterling shows a tender side to his personality by reciting different phrases with Hambone and coaxing him in a gamelike way to say more than his “I want my ham” mantra.

Conversation and convergence of personality is rife, as in any Wilson play. Myrick-Hodges’s cast at the Arden is individually and uniformly superb. It was particularly wonderful to see U,R, back in stride as an exciting, tension-causing Sterling and to be introduced to the energetic Darian Dauchan as Wolf and the calming, contented Damian J. Wallace as the stoic Holloway. Adding to the gratification is seeing Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. tackle a part with meat on its bones as Memphis, Lakisha Gray transcending Wilson’s script as Risa, E. Roger Mitchell embodying pomp and grandeur as West, and Kash Goins, charming and articulate as all get-out giving a pre-play curtain speech, lapsing into Hambone’s fixated daze when the lights come up on David P. Gordon’s complete and realistic set.

Myrick-Hodges’s is a “Two Trains Running” that holds your interest and relaxes you in the company of Wilson’s characters. You find it easy to listen to their stories, even those that, in typical Wilson fashion, are repeated several times. You see the various types as a cross-section of a community, ranging from wealthy and influential like West to the recently free and directionless Sterling. There’s a lot to engage you in Myrick-Hodges’s production and a lot of life stories, personal and communal situations, and attitudes to consider. For all this “Two Trains Running” commands your attention and earns admiration, it is lacking one important thing, a catalyst that will move you and give you some emotional ties to the characters.

We are observers, satisfied observers, of Myrick-Hodges’s work. This production is never boring and always provides a performance to savor. Wilson’s thoughts comes out plainly through his character’s. You come to know the denizens of Leo’s and look forward to what they have to say. I especially couldn’t wait for the reasoned, folksy opinions of Holloway, the character most at peace with his lot and ready to glide through his life reading his dream books and discussing local gossip as he sips his coffee and slowly eats his muffin with nonchalant precision and regularity that denote his total existence. We take some interest, a fairly large one in whether Memphis gets a fair deal for his doomed enterprise, and a smaller one in whether Sterling will hit the number he needs to establish himself and court Risa. But for whatever reason, and I can’t quite peg it, we remain spectators of an absorbing story without ever getting immersed in it or affected by it. I admired Myrick-Hodges’s production, but I never connected with it viscerally.

Our position as interlopers for several scenes at Memphis’s restaurant is a lucky one. We’re seeing some fine acting and hearing interesting stories that depict a specific place, time, and people. We attend to all that is said and comprehend everything from the angst to cockiness and responsibility to the randomness the characters represent, but we are strangely untouched by any of it. I was always interested in “Two Trains Running” but I was never engrossed by it. The experience of watching it is more than pleasant. It’s exhilarating on some level to see such marvelous acting and deft storytelling. That level for me stayed intellectual, distanced, and matter-of-fact (even though I was sitting close to the action, as I prefer).

I listened as I would to a conversation rather than responding as I do to plays. I was always happy I was seeing a fine work performed so meticulously and even creatively — These actors are amazing. Myrick-Hodges establishes a strong tone of reality — but never did I lose objectivity or take a stake in one or another person’s dilemma. I was like the character I enjoyed so much, Holloway, observantly and contentedly taking everything in but feeling nothing. Even my embarrassingly reflexive tear ducts stayed dry. My interest remained historical, anthropological, and even nosy rather than intense and empathetic. I could see, from a critical standpoint, how good Myrick Hodges’s staging is. I admired a lot of the detail that went beyond the acting to the appointments in the diner, the sign above it, and the images of winning daily numbers and of Malcolm X that flashed on overhead screens that cleverly looked like billboard ads lining Wiley Avenue. But my reaction never went past sincere appreciation to wonder, awe, or veneration (as it did in January with McCarter’s “The Piano Lesson,” a play I don’t usually like as much as “Two Trains Running,” or last year with People’s Light’s “Fences,” the play I regard as the best in Wilson’s decalogue).

Perhaps the interaction of characters, even wonderfully played, doesn’t create the tension established between Boy Willie and Bereneice in “The Piano Lesson” or plot and theme aren’t as well meshed as they are in Troy Maxon’s wonderful story in “Fences.” Maybe we don’t worry enough about how the actions and behavior of one character is going to affect another. Everyone’s on his own track, as if seven separate trains were running, and not just the two Memphis repeatedly reminds us go back and forth from Pittsburgh to Mississippi carrying the people who want to try for a new life in the North one way and those who have given up dreaming and return to the South they know the other. Sterling’s attraction to a simultaneously game and reluctant Risa marks the only time one character must elicit a specific and definite response to another. Even confrontations regarding Wolf’s numbers writing and West’s offer to buy Memphis’s diner so he doesn’t have to haggle with Pittsburgh’s City Hall don’t amount to high stakes. Wilson may have handicapped Myrick-Hodges by keeping each character’s business so much his own.

The reason for the alienation doesn’t matter. I felt it. Or, most precisely, failed to feel anything gripping or involving. The problem could be me on a particular night of theatergoing.

Whatever, the Arden production is worth seeing to enjoy some excellent acting and to hear the points of view Wilson has his characters spout.

As I noted, I was delighted to see U.R. back on a local stage after more than a year’s absence. He is an intense, visceral actor who combines intelligence, true knowledge of his character, with intensity. Things crackle when U.R. is one stage. There’s danger in his Sterling, even if Wilson chooses to have the character contain it. The point is you don’t know. Sterling is a volcano, one who is trying to keep his lava flow in check but may have too much of an impulsive streak or temper to prevent ultimate explosion. Memphis, for one, thinks the only fate for Sterling is a trip back to jail. U.R, brings out the inner struggles within U.R.’s character, a man who wants to be practical on terms different from Memphis’s or Wolf’s but who might not have the patience to wait until matters jell in his favor or the resignation to toil just to get by that Memphis does. For all of Sterling’s grounding in hard reality, honed by five years of being locked up, he can also dream, as in supposing a romance with Risa or taking Aunt Esther’s cryptically encouraging words to him to heart.

Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., as usual, cuts to the core of Memphis. This is a man who worked hard for everything he has and doesn’t understand people who don’t knuckle down and get some foundation under their feet. Pittsburgh in a steel town in 1969, and one thing civil rights confrontations have done is make more room for black men to be hired and make their living at the mills (the previously noted Catch-22 willing). Memphis has no respect for Wolf or Sterling, writing numbers and waiting for something big to happen, instead of heading to the mills to earn an honest paycheck and establish a conventional life. Hobbs is great at showing his disdain for the youth, especially towards Wolf who conducts illegal business on Memphis’s property. Hobbs stands for the man who has done right and expects right to be done by him. Pittsburgh wants his land. It should pay for it. Risa is hired to work. She should be doing something every minute. Wolf is a gangster. Let him ply his bloodsucking trade someplace else. Sterling is an ex-con. Let him prove he has something constructive in mind for his future. Memphis is not easy on anyone, even on himself, and Hobbs shows that while asking other characters to be realistic and reasonable.

The character you want to share the table with at Leo’s is Holloway, the amiable, even-tempered elder played with easygoing naturalness by Damian J. Wallace. Holloway has his superstitions, and he has his ideas about Wolf and Sterling being jail-bound wastrels, but he takes all in his stride. He fought his battles when he came to Pittsburgh from Mississippi and let the train running South go on without him. He worked, is now on a pension, and all suits him fine. His coffee and muffin, delivered to his regular table by Risa before he sits down, is enough for him, especially when coupled with whatever neighborhood gossip West or Wolf bring with them to the diner. Holloway doesn’t look for arguments or involvement in issues. He enjoys sitting back and letting others agonize. He made a life, it satisfies him, and that’s all he needs to know. Wallace is so good in the part, you want to ask him to dinner just you can jabber more with Holloway and maybe tag along when he goes to see Aunt Esther.

Darian Dauchan makes Wolf a likeable sparkplug who can’t sit still and wants to be involved in everything, especially if it makes him relatively easy money. He enjoys his position as the local numbers writer. People seek him out, They talk to him. His restlessness is quenched by the activity his business and the non-stop nature of his life, each of which intersects neatly with the other. Dauchan shows Wolf to be comfortable within himself. He is happy to be a man about town and has neither illusions nor regret about how he makes his handsome living. Wolf is the wild card who will probably stay one step ahead of the law that is bound to snare Sterling. He’s quick with a comeback, sharp from experience, and open to fun in life. Like Risa, and the begrudging Memphis, he looks out for the addled Hambone, showing there’s some feeling beyond leading a loose and lucrative life of relatively harmless crime.

E. Roger Mitchell is every inch the neighborhood potentate as West. His character has done well by selling plots, coffins, flowers, and grave watches in addition to preparation and burials as the Hill’s most prominent funeral director. His bearing, well-tailored suits, and fastidious table manners show West to be a man of stature. Mitchell is also good at making West seem like a sincere friend when he advises Memphis about his property, as opposed to seeming a studied swindler who is offering a sucker’s bet in the name of benevolence.

Kash Goins finds the boundary that keeps Hambone affecting but not irritating as he repeats in a gravelly voice, “I want my ham.”

Lakisha May is astounding real as Memphis’s versatile employee, Risa, who has street smarts, native common sense, and honest sentiment that mark her as one of the more evolved characters on the stage. May blends so well into Risa’s character, you don’t know she’s acting. Her response to each situation is authentic and spontaneous. Risa has the ready look she gives to men when they are being foolish and speaking nonsense, but she can also be romantic, girlish, and open to flattery. She goes about her business efficiently but she is not beyond commenting when she’s hearing the same old bilge or rolling her eyes when Memphis orders her to do something she’s in the process of doing. Risa shares Memphis’s work ethic, preferring to be independent by holding a job and doing it well rather than trusting a man to take care of her. May endows Risa with dimension and depth. She is one who knows the score but who is young enough to believe someone some day will be trustworthy and share a fuller life with her. Risa might not aspire to the heights Sterling and Wolf want, but she is not blind to a more practical, conventional happiness she is young enough to believe might be found.

All diners should be as clean and well-appointed as David P. Gordon’s set. From the spacing of the tables to the compactness of the kitchen, Gordon finds authenticity that makes Leo’s inviting. Alison Roberts did a fine job with costuming, especially for Wolf, Sterling, and Holloway whose clothes fit right into their various parts. Xavier Price’s lighting differentiate times of day. Nicholas Hussong’s videos of Malcolm X and changing numbers add texture to Myrick-Hodges’s production (even in the speeches seem out of keeping with Wilson’s preference to let his characters do the talking).

“Two Trains Running” runs through Sunday, April 10, at the Arden Theatre, 40 S. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtomes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (No performance on Thursday, April 7), 7 p.m. Sunday, March 31, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 10 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday. Tickets range from $50 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 (required for the 10 a.m. performances) or by visiting www.ardentheatre,org. Grade: B+

 

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