Two Trains Running
By August Wilson
Signature Theater Company, New York
November 7-January 28, 2007
Directed by Lou Bellamy
“Two Trains Running” is August Wilson’s recent installment in his saga about a group of lower middle class blacks fixated on a heaven of Pittsburgh. “Fences” introduced the people and their longing-- “That’s my goal,” cries Memphis early on, as if recalling the earlier plays, and much as if Pittsburgh were a glowing horizon, or the Moscow of “Three Sisters”. In “Two Trains Running”, they’ve reached Pittsburgh and it’s clear they are no closer to the ideal state they envisioned. “What do we do now?” one of them asks hopelessly.
More accurately, the couple have only come to a way station, a diner, a bleak Hopper painting seen from the inside. It’s owned and run by a big man, Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), who cheerfully keeps the petty cons like Memphis (Frankie Faison) and Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones)a numbers runner, from getting to him. “I own this place,” he announces several times loudly, setting himself apart from the drifters, the Rev, the crackbrained Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), who comes through every hour wailing “gimme my ham.” The waitress Risa (January Lavoy) sets the pace for the action with a slack hipped, slouching walk, letting her sling back shoes slap the floor with each step, while she stares straight ahead, moving from one or another lino table to the counter and back like an automaton. In her too tight uniform and fixed masque of an expression, she establishes the play’s mood of relentless monotony, saying without saying that time moves through them and will forever, bringing nothing leaving nothing. They perch on stools at the edge of the world.
Outside the diner is death–the metaphor cannot be missed. Hambone doesn’t turn up one day and Risa scrawls the place of his funeral on the blackboard. Otherwise she continues to disdain the habitues with her hip swaying, lockstep drag and the hideous, three-inch long black leeches she applies to her legs (mercifully off stage) each day. The death bearing animals sticking to her guarantee that no man will approach her. Sterling makes half a gesture toward her which she coldly rejects. No love here.
In sum, the play overall is much darker than the earlier ones in Wilson’s epic and yet perhaps the weakest. Talk here is unfocussed, like the characters’ desires, which ultimately add dimension to them yet not clarity. The dude with a gun is basically a middle class type; Wes a business man; Memphis is a con; the proper man in suit, gloves and rolled brim tells the tall tale of his wife “320 yrs old”; all in one way or another use language to defy reality. They are conjurers making it all up out of thin air and exemplifying, by the way, Wilson’s gift of separating a singing rhetoric from strict logic. In this sense the play is the most static of the Pittsburgh trio, the most Chekhovian.
There is no place these people must go; they slowly, deliberately “keep a lid on,” as if their lives have been postponed. Something will happen tomorrow, when Memphis has to be in court, though why is not clear; something is threatened by that gun. Risa keeps the status quo by rejecting Sterling’s offer of marriage, still, the offer implies a future. Things do change yet remain the same. They bury Hambone, but return to the diner after the funeral. They resemble the types in Harry Hope’s saloon in “The Iceman Cometh,” who return in spite of their daily, fervent promise to go off and “do” something.
“Two Trains Running” August Wilson at the Signature Theatre Company, NYC. Directed by Lou Bellamy. Set by Derek McLane. Featuring Ron Cephas Jones (Wolf); Frankie Faison (Memphis); January Lavoy (Risa); Arthur French (Holloway); Leon Addison Brown (Hambone); Chad L. Coleman (Sterling); Ed Wheeler (West.).