Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
If Two Trains Running were an ordinary play, it would be about a few days in the life of some regular folks living in a declining African-American community in the late 1960s. Memphis Lee (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.) tries to run the local diner while negotiating its sale. In addition to tackling the jobs of cook, bus-boy, and waitress, Risa (Lakisha May) deals with the advances of small-time criminal Wolf (Darian Dauchan) and the hopelessly unemployed Sterling (U.R.) who has just recently returned from prison. Dime store philosopher Holloway (Damien J. Wallace) sets up at the same table each morning to dispense wisdom and whiskey. Wealthy funeral director West stops by for coffee and pie.
Fortunately, August Wilson is no ordinary playwright and Two Trains Running is no ordinary play. The setting is a once-popular diner now slated for government acquisition and demolition in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1969. That's almost 15 years into the Vietnam War during the tumultuous months that followed the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and yet this historically significant setting is not a catalyst for action or even a topic of discussion. It is more like a member of the cast who lingers in the corner, silently threatening to erupt at any moment.
Wilson's pitch perfect dialogue and lyrical language are the stars of this show and director Raelle Myrick-Hodges really lets the text shine in this Arden Theatre Company production. The characters themselves are only the nominal focus of the play's action. The real drama happens within the incredible stories they tell. Hobbs skillfully spins the heartbreaking story of Memphis's old mule. Wallace is a strong Holloway. His recollection of a grandfather who could not wait to die and pick cotton for a white God is raw and powerful. Stories that initially seem minor and disjoint ultimately coalesce into complex philosophies of faith, economics, death, shared cultural heritage, and racial oppression.
Those stories are the heart of Two Trains Running and they are brought to life here in a way that is both intriguing and deeply moving. These stories feel impossibly personal, yet they speak to the types of oppression experienced by all black Americans. All of Wilson's characters have been affected by the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, violent opposition to the civil rights movement, and a deeply antagonistic criminal justice system. That is the brilliance of Wilson's work; by focusing on the lives of a few ordinary people he is able to show the profound impact and tragic limitations of social progress.
Unfortunately, the Arden's version never becomes more than a series of spectacular monologues. The entire production lacks a sense of desperation, and without that dark edge Two Trains Running does not achieve the emotional engagement necessary to make it great theater. The impressively realistic set looks more like a newly minted 1950s theme diner than a run-down corner coffee shop. Some of the costumes have an early 1970s flare, but most of the button down shirts and sharp suits would be right at home in a New England prep school. Most importantly, the characters do not convey a sense of malice or despair. Even though he is running numbers and selling guns, Wolf never comes across as an opportunistic predator. Sterling does not have two dollars in this pocket, but at no point does he convey the stress of a person struggling to pay the rent or put food on the table. The interactions between the characters are congenial where they should be fraught. Memphis repeatedly chastises Risa, but he comes off as more of a nagging father figure than a mean-spirited old man. Risa in turn seems casually disinterested in the advances of Wolf and Sterling rather than being annoyed, frustrated, or confused.
Although it falls short as a dramatic experience, this is still a thoroughly captivating, thought provoking, and enjoyable evening of theater. The director and the actors let the text sing and that is more than enough to make this Two Trains Running worth seeing.
Two Trains Running keeps running through April 10, 2016, at the Arden Theatre Company's F. Otto Haas Stage at 40 N. 2nd Street in Philadelphia. For tickets Call the Box Office at 215.922.1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.