One of the exceptional qualities of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle about the African-American experience is the late playwright’s unique ability to create miniaturist portraiture in an epic frame. That dual embrace of intimacy and breadth is captured to delicate perfection in Signature Theater Company’s revival of “Two Trains Running.” The incomparable bluesy vernacular of Wilson’s language comes to life with every subtle nuance fully explored and every poignant swing of the pendulum between joy and sorrow, anger and hope deeply felt. There’s no more unified ensemble on a New York stage right now — and no more emotionally affecting one either.
While it’s generally not considered among the finest of the plays that make up Wilson’s decade-by-decade chronicle, like “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Piano Lesson,” this expertly calibrated production makes a case for the 1992 drama as an overlooked work by a writer at the peak of his powers.
At three hours-plus it’s certainly leisurely, but the unhurried rhythms are riveting, the sing-song musicality of the dialogue is intoxicating and the humanity of the characters bracing and beautiful. The milieu evoked here — a Pittsburgh Hill District diner in 1969, its regulars cognizant of the rumblings of national ferment but far from its frontlines — is highly specific yet feels summoned from collective consciousness.
Director Lou Bellamy has not worked in New York before, but in 30 years as artistic director of Saint Paul’s Penumbra Theater, he has produced more of Wilson’s plays than any company in the world. The familiarity and love of the work that implies is more than evident onstage.
Allowing the text to breathe in all the right ways, there’s a gracious, easeful approach to the direction that extends to the superb cast. They give the impression of having sipped coffee and eaten pie together for years, rubbing elbows and butting heads, sharing moments of elation or deflation. Whether they are brooding in silence or winding up into impassioned rants, chattering away about the most ordinary of stuff, endorsing magical superstitions, lost in the bitterness of old injustices or in one of Wilson’s characteristic poetic raptures, the seven actors create real, lived-in characters.
Memphis (Frankie Faison) is a Mississippi transplant whose diner is marked for demolition as part of the city’s urban renewal plans. He aims to get a good price for it and return south to reclaim the land unfairly taken from him. Waitress Risa (January Lavoy) is scarred in more visible ways, her stockings lumpy with the lines she gouged in her legs to keep men away.
Money and death figure heavily. A smartly turned-out gent who has grown prosperous on the community’s most profitable business — funerals — undertaker West (Ed Wheeler) is dealing with crowds coming to view the body of shady evangelist Prophet Samuel, to be buried with his riches and jewelry in the casket. West keeps repeating his lowball bid for the diner, but Memphis holds out. Slick Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones) runs a numbers game. Charismatic ex-con Sterling (Chad L. Coleman) wants a job but will settle for a lucky win, betting the number of scars on Risa’s legs and planning to marry her with the proceeds, despite her apparent indifference.
Commenting on it all like a folksy barber-shop philosopher is Holloway (Arthur French), a sweet-souled oldster who recognizes the futility of trying to beat the white man at his own game. Instead, as a remedy for all ills, he advocates a visit to the supposedly 322-year-old local spiritual counselor Aunt Esther, who is unseen here but appears in Wilson’s later (though chronologically earlier) play, “Gem of the Ocean.”
Mentally damaged characters figure often in Wilson’s plays, this time with Hambone (Leon Addison Brown). Still waiting 9½ years later, for the ham he was promised for painting a fence at the grocery store across the street (“He gonna give me my ham,” is his anxious refrain), he’s a somewhat emphatic metaphor for the wounds of exploitation but the character facilitates the soulful act of deliverance that closes the play.
In terms of narrative incident, not a lot happens, and Wilson displays a crafty, humorous vein by introducing not one but two loaded guns and then not having them go off. The tragedy comes quietly from elsewhere.
Wilson papers the flavorful drama with social history, civil unrest and racial conflict, the echoes of slavery and the battle for economic freedom and upward mobility. These factors are never intrusive, however. The larger drama happening in America is audible in the wings, reflected obliquely but resonantly through the characters’ experience. Rather than grafting issues on, as lesser playwrights might, Wilson stitched them into the fabric of these folks’ dreams, their frustrations, resignations and unyielding struggles.
The director and actors here are so in tune with the writer’s intentions that bittersweet sadness seems to permeate the air in designer Derek McLane’s handsomely replicated classic American diner.
Performances down the line are hard to fault. Faison bristles with resentment, powerfully articulating the rage of ingrained injustice in some explosive monologues. Lean, rubber-limbed Jones displays moves and words as sharp as Wolf’s outfits. Brown is heart- wrenching and French brings a marvelous, wry mellowness to some of the play’s most memorable passages.
While Wilson’s canvas is a large one, the heart of the drama increasingly becomes the slow-blooming romance between Sterling and Risa. The idea of hope and insulation from a difficult world manifested through love is nothing new, but it’s expressed with aching sweetness here in the writing and in two exquisite performances.
A cocky charmer whose growing political awareness is perhaps the play’s most direct channeling of the late-’60s mood, Coleman’s Sterling is so clearly bewitched by Risa that his perseverance is ennobling. Dragging her feet with the straps of her sling backs trailing beneath her heels, Lavoy’s Risa is bruised to the point of annulment, but her compassion and dignity are never obscured. When she takes off her apron to dance with Sterling to the music of the previously silent jukebox, you want to cheer.