Location, location, location. In the Pittsburgh of August Wilson, there's only one address that matters: 1839 Wiley Ave., home of Aunt Ester. The people say she's as old as slavery and can heal its terrible wounds. If you want to get right with yourself, head over to Wiley and knock on the red door.
While Esther's power dominates two Wilson plays now running in Los Angeles, she's the kind of totemic figure who is probably more effective offstage (as in "Two Trains Running" at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center) than in the flesh ("Gem of the Ocean" at the Fountain Theatre).
"Trains" marks the auspicious debut of the Ebony Repertory Theatre, in residence at the Holden. Director Israel Hicks puts on a fine show, heating up the spacious theater. It's 1969, and the regulars at a run-down cafe (designed with just the right amount of cozy exhaustion by Edward E. Haynes Jr.) gather to share news of the day. Holloway (a droll Roger Robinson) talks politics while Wolf (Felton Perry) runs numbers. The owner, Memphis (Glynn Turman), waits for a court date to learn how much the city will hand over to tear his property down.
Renewal, urban and otherwise, is the subject of the day. Sterling (Russell Hornsby), fresh out of the penitentiary, wanders in looking for a hot meal and finds two living ghosts: Risa (Michole Briana White), possibly the world's worst waitress; and Hambone (Ellis E. Williams), who haunts the neighborhood like a one-note Ancient Mariner. Their stories differ, but their quests are the same: What's the best means to freedom?
"Two Trains" lacks the dramatic wallop of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" or "Fences," but its stunning monologues are gorgeous, funny and savage. "Gem of the Ocean," set in 1904, is structurally similar to "Trains." Both are driven by young men whose vigor lacks moral purpose, something they will learn from an older, "touched" male character and a guarded young woman. Each play ends with a crime -- or is it an act of justice?
Citizen Barlow (Keith Arthur Bolden) arrives at 1839 Wylie carrying a secret. He upsets the delicate balance of the house, where Aunt Ester (Juanita Jennings) is cared for by Black Mary (Tene Carter Miller) and Eli (Jeris Lee Poindexter), under the disapproving eye of Mary's brother, Caesar (Rodney Gardiner), an overzealous agent of the police who has channeled his own self-loathing into an addiction to vengeance.
In the intimate Fountain Theatre, "Gem" has heart, bustle and sweat. Director Ben Bradley's appealing production achieves a tactile feel that earns its big metaphorical set piece: Citizen's spiritual baptism, a ritualistic sequence that puts him in anguished, liberating touch with his ancestors. But while thrillingly staged, the journey to the City of Bones is not nearly as gripping as the crisp scene in which Black Mary lays down her law to the overeager Citizen. Wilson's got metaphor to burn, and his drama works best when all that meaning gets hitched to a specific story. The play's flaws, however, stand apart from the ensemble's committed work.
Wilson was a giant, and his early death at 60 reminds us how precious it is to have a great artist around to write the rich, troubled language of American souls.
"Gem of the Ocean," the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 16. $18-$28. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
"Two Trains Running," Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 9. $20-$50. www.ebonyrepertorytheatre.org. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.