Watching August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" at Wednesday's press preview at the Doolittle Theatre, it's amazing how three things got smarter: The production, the audience, this writer. All three seem invested with a much clearer sense of what this play is really about.
Axiomatic, my dear Watson, since a better show brings things into sharper focus. A lot has happened to "Two Trains" since it was seen last in March, 1991 at San Diego's Old Globe, including one inspired bit of casting. But the changes are deeper and more subtle than that. The production has come of age. Under Lloyd Richards' meticulous and persistent direction, it is now much more seasoned and modulated, so that even some of its lingering rough spots can be more easily forgiven.
"Two Trains" is undoubtedly the most static of the plays in Wilson's 20th-Century cycle. It doesn't have the overtly totemic aspects of "The Piano Lesson" or the stressful conflicts of "Fences," Wilson's two Pulitzer Prize winners. It lacks the sense of disturbing mystery of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" or the explosiveness of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
"Two Trains" is still waters--a less eventful, deceptively mundane, talky play that, in San Diego, had seemed like an overextended vignette. Not so now. Experiencing it anew some nine months later, the piece proves much more compelling than before, a symphonic composition with a rich lode of humanity running though it.
That it happens to be African-American humanity means it relates to a specific history and experience. That it is set in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, yet feels more like a 1930s play, remains a problem. We find ourselves thrown in with a group of regulars in Memphis Lee's dingy Pittsburgh cafe whose references or direct connections to the time of their lives are too few and too casual.
The cafe is in an area of the city about to be gentrified. Symbols and themes of death and rebirth abound. Across the street are Lutz's slaughterhouse and West's mortuary. In the drab coffee shop (an aptly dreary antique set by Tony Fanning, nicely lit by Geoff Korf), middle-aged owner Memphis (Al White) presides over his fiefdom. His only employee is the near-catatonic waitress, Risa (Cynthia Martells), a young woman whose legs show the scars of an odd act of self-mutilation.
The regulars are Wolf (Anthony Chisholm), the numbers runner who uses Lee's public phone booth as his office; Sterling (Larry Fishburne), a Young Turk fresh out of prison for a bungled robbery and eager to start his life afresh; the mentally troubled Hambone (Sullivan Walker), a man who can't forget a broken promise, and Holloway (Roscoe Lee Browne), the cafe's entrenched philosopher.
Memphis, dispossessed once before and recently divorced, finds it hard to face impending dispossession once again and wants the city to compensate him well for the loss. Undertaker West (Chuck Patterson), who owns most of the rest of the block, offers repeatedly to buy him out, but Memphis resists. Except for this and Sterling's falling in love with the impossibly sluggish Risa, arousing some strange vestigial sexiness in her before play's end, this is not a play in which things happen.
Any resemblance to Saroyan's "Time of Your Life" or O'Neill's "Iceman Cometh" is equally symbolic: that of decent people trapped in a world that fails them. Wolf, the numbers runner, is an aspect of negative hope, a risky tool for breaking out. But the real key to the play is buried in its only totemic reference: the existence a few doors up Wylie Avenue of Aunt Esther, a woman we never see, a woman Holloway assures us is 322 years old but "look like she 500." Aunt Esther, as old as the birth of slavery in America, dishes out oracular wisdom that fools may ignore only at their own peril.
In the end, "Two Trains Running" still is not about the '60s or the '70s except in the roundabout sense that it is about learning to claim your space, an awareness taught during those years. It is about picking up the ball and running with it, something less likely and less possible for African-Americans prior to the collective self-assertion of those decades.
The cast, unchanged from San Diego except for Martells and Browne (who replaces the late Ed Hall), is much more coordinated than before. All the actors are giving sharp, lively performances that have deepened and solidified, none more impressively than Walker's devastating Hambone--the only man in the group to pay a profound personal price for keeping his eyes on the prize. . . .
Martells is having difficulty marrying the problematic Risa's oddities with her more human second-act touches and there isn't enough electricity between her and the anxious Sterling. But Browne is a terrific Holloway.