Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Two Trains Running is set in Memphis' restaurant in Pittsburgh's Hill District (the location of all but one of the ten of Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays.) It used to a popular spot with people coming from all over to eat, but now only a few regulars stop by each day. There is change in the air in the form of gentrification and the rise of racial tension in the aftermath of the death, the year before, of Martin Luther King Jr. With the city making plans to tear down twelve blocks in the area, Memphis is hoping to make a nice profit on the building by selling it back to the city. Talk of racial tension, nearby rallies, chants of "black is beautiful," and the hopes and dreams of the residents in the area are threaded throughout the discussions the customers have as they go about their ordinary, daily lives.
While the plot is sparse across the three-hour play, Wilson's characters and dialogue are continually riveting, with good pacing and several monologues that draw the audience into their plights. Lou Bellamy, who directed ATC's superb production of Fences back in 2016, is an expert in bringing Wilson's plays to the stage and his work on Two Trains Running is no exception. He has also reassembled his entire creative team from that Fences production and they all deliver exceptional work. Vicki Smith's scenic design is so realistic you'd easily expect to be able to order a meal in the exquisite restaurant set. Mathew LeFebvre's costumes beautifully depict the period and Don Darnutzer's lighting is excellent. Sound designer Brian Jerome Peterson uses several sound effects and musical interludes to great effect.
The cast is as exceptional as the creative designs. They form a well-oiled ensemble who create realistic characters that pull you into their stories. As Memphis, James Craven is strong and powerful. Memphis thinks he knows how to deal with white people and when he tells about once owning land in Jackson, Mississippi, that he believes was taken from him illegally years ago and that he has plans to go back and reclaim it, it's easy to understand why he doesn't want to be taken advantage of again when he sells his building for the price he believes it's worth. Craven instills his portrayal of the hard-working Memphis with traits of persistence and determination. Erika LaVonn is compassionate and dramatic as the mysterious Risa, who works for Memphis in the restaurant. Risa is a realist and the voice of reason. She doesn't want to be tied up with a man but finds herself drawn to Sterling, who was just released from the penitentiary after serving time for robbing a bank. Cedric Mays is incredibly passionate as this young man who is trying to find his way in life, and also find a way to make Risa realize he is the man for her. Both LaVonn and Mays also occasionally and beautifully show the vulnerability underneath their characters' steely exteriors.
Alan Bomar Jones is soft spoken as Holloway, the retired philosopher of the group who often recommends everyone seek answers from Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old woman with mystical abilities who lives in the District and factors into several of Wilson's plays. Halloway's monologue, in which he talks about his grandfather's inability to stand up for his fellow African Americans, is expertly delivered by Jones. As West, the jaded, wealthy owner of the local funeral parlor down the street, Dennis Spears also has an exceptionally stated monologue in which he practically observes that, unlike life, death is forever. Lester Purry is sharp as Wolf, the local numbers runner, and Ahanti Young is heartbreaking as Hambone, the mentally challenged man who has spent ten years trying to get payment from a white man across the street for painting his fence.
While it may focus on African Americans in 1960s Pittsburgh, Two Trains Running is an impressive and visionary work from one of 20th century America's best playwrights that focuses on ordinary people trying to get through their daily lives, something anyone can relate to. With an excellent cast, confident direction, and impressive creative aspects, Arizona Theatre Company's production is compelling theatre.
Two Trains Running, through March 3, 2019, at Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling 602-2566995.
Director: Lou Bellamy