There’s little argument that “Fences” is August Wilson’s greatest achievement. If asked to name a runner-up from Wilson’s 10-play cycle that focuses on his childhood home, Pittsburgh’s gritty Hill District, many would choose “Two Trains Running.” At San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, director Seret Scott’s production is hobbled by a few nagging shortcomings, but they don’t blunt the fierce brilliance that burns at the core of this story.
“Two Trains Running” shares the qualities of Wilson’s best work: the volcanic anger of the dispossessed, the characters’ ceaseless quest for a better life in unpromising circumstances, and the power of humor, fellowship and love (both romantic and platonic) to make the unbearable somehow endurable.
What distinguishes “Two Trains Running” is the powerful conviction of its characters. Few American playwrights have created personas with such moral gravitas. In lesser hands, a line such as “Freedom is heavy. You gotta put your shoulder to it” would sound like a hollow platitude. Yet Wilson’s characters have earned the right to say such things: They’ve lived through hell.
Scott’s production, though, gets preachy and heavy-handed before it’s even out of the gate. Huge black-and-white photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. hang above Tony Fanning’s wonderfully evocative set like two accusatory elders reminding us of the larger issues at stake. Such symbols undermine one of Wilson’s greatest strengths: concentrating on the human element and refusing to turn his intimately scaled, social-realist tales into Big Issue polemics. It’s the particularity of Wilson’s plays that, ironically, make their themes universal.
“Two Trains Running” takes place in 1968, when the tumultuous optimism of the Civil Rights movement had been tempered by the recent murder of Dr. King. The story is set in Memphis Lee’s small, dingy cafe in the Hill District, which will soon be demolished to make way for an urban renewal project. Every day, a small and diverse community of black men gather at Lee’s: grizzled old Hambone (Willie C. Carpenter), an apparent lunatic who’s determined to get his due — a side of ham — for some painting he did years ago for a local butcher; Wolf (Montae Russell), a streetwise numbers runner who uses Lee’s restaurant to transact his business on the pay phone; Sterling (Edi Gathegi), a young firebrand just out of prison who’s bent on getting everybody involved in a rally for racial justice; Holloway (James Avery), a retired housepainter who’s seen it all and acts as the group’s cynical and worldly philosopher; and West (Al White), the local undertaker and the lone wealthy man in the group.
Serving and presiding over them are Risa (Roslyn Ruff), a waitress of few words whose slow, pithy responses (and seething silences) speak volumes, and Memphis (Chuck Cooper), who still harbors bitter memories of his past — he was a sharecropper who lost his land (and, nearly, his life) to rapacious white businessmen in the early 1930s.
Those who know Wilson’s work will find plenty that’s familiar in “Two Trains Running”: the gorgeously cadenced language, earthy yet suffused with subtext and always buoyed by Wilson’s uncanny sense of musicality; the half-crazed seer (Hambone); recurring characters such as the unseen Aunt Ester, a semi-mythical proto-elder who’s allegedly more than 300 years old (she can be found in two other Wilson plays).
Scott’s production also suffers from uneven casting and less-than-perfect performances. Russell’s accent is often unconvincing. Avery is guilty of more than a little line bobbling. Gathegi’s Sterling is too big on the angry-young-man stridency, making one wonder how a talent such as Laurence Fishburne handled the role (he played Sterling in the Old Globe’s previous production back in 1991).
On the other hand, the strong performances are formidable indeed. Ruff’s Risa can be heartbreaking or hilarious. She’s a master of wordless craft: a smoldering look, a perfectly timed pause, a casually thrown piece of silverware. Ruff gives Risa’s pain (and her mysterious self-mutilation) plenty of plausibility.
But it’s Cooper who’s the principal reason to see this production. He’s a well-respected Broadway veteran (he landed a Tony for “The Life”), and he shapes Memphis with magisterial restraint. Memphis’ hurt and anger are revealed gradually, building to a mid-play explosion of outrage that remains one of Wilson’s (and American theater’s) finest soliloquies.