A sense of warm, off-kilter comfort emanates from Memphis Lee’s restaurant, ensconced on the stage of Seattle Repertory Theatre where August Wilson’s Two Trains Running is currently playing, a co-production with Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The homey restaurant, hemmed in by an orderly bird’s nest of telephone wires, feels like a human sanctuary in a full-to-bursting city, a decades-old place where regulars come every day.
The restaurant’s days are numbered, we learn early on, because the city of Pittsburgh plans to raze the block. Seattle being 2018 Seattle, the temptation to make Wilson’s play about a place is intense. But all places are really about people anyway, and the marvelous performances here won’t let you forget that.
Two Trains Running is the 1960s installment of Wilson’s 10-part series The Century Cycle, chronicling African American life decade by decade. It premiered at Yale Rep in 1990 and on Broadway in 1992, starring Laurence Fishburn, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Nearly 30 years since it was written, the play’s generational divides, hurried introspection and prismatic views on faith have taken on new flavors, like a wonderful stew mellowing over time into a complex heat.
Memphis (Eugene Lee) himself is an enigmatic figure, holding shrug-shouldered court amid his regulars. There’s the restaurant’s one waitress, Risa (Nicole Lewis); Holloway (David Emerson Toney), a former house painter-turned-armchair philosopher; Wolf (Reginald André Jackson), a numbers runner; and Hambone (Frank Riley III), so called because every morning for nearly 10 years he’s stood outside a butcher shop demanding the ham he believes the owner cheated him out of. Upsetting their daily balance is Sterling (Carlton Byrd), recently released from prison and back home looking for work.
At three hours long, full of luscious monologues and deliciously quotidian dialogue, Two Trains Running is a drama from a different time, far from today’s 90 minutes-no-intermission ideal. There is something refreshingly languid about a play that takes its time, that doesn’t include only the storytelling essentials.
Then again, Wilson’s masterful language deserves every moment it takes, fluid without being florid and resisting all unnatural exposition, including the shoehorning in of chronological markers. Malcolm X’s death is mentioned, and it’s practically the only world event referenced in the play. For a play set in late-1960s America, in the heat of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war, the shadow of the Space Race and the Cold War, to choose this remove is powerful. The folks at Memphis’s are living their own busy lives, and to frame their experience only in response to external socio-political forces would be a disservice to their individuality.
Wilson’s pays close, empathetic attention to individuality on a psychological and social level: how each character views Black people, how they deal with white people, how they regard money, where they find faith. Risa was a spiritually and financially devoted follower of the recently deceased Prophet Samuel, a wildly rich man of God, but can’t understand why people throw what little money they have away on playing the numbers. West (William Hall Jr.), the local undertaker, has made a fortune catering to (and bilking) the Black community. Memphis, who was violently driven off his Southern farm by white people in the 1930s, just wants a fair price for his property. Holloway sings the praises of Aunt Ester, a supposedly 322-year-old woman capable of changing your fortunes, in exchange for which she asks you to throw money the river. Wolf has steady work in the numbers racket but can’t find love; the endlessly charismatic, upbeat Sterling searches fruitlessly for work, but he does find Risa. Everyone has their salve—gambling, religion, superstition, revolution. Lee thinks that all young Black people want to do is hold rally after rally, and forget about the work that comes in between. Sterling won’t give up on himself. Hambone won’t give up on his ham.
Despite some uneven performances, the energy in this Two Trains never flags, at least not unintentionally. Lee’s hilariously cynical Memphis is a weighty counterpoint to Lewis’ kind, pensive Risa and Byrd’s lithe, driving optimism as Sterling, easy without being oily. Jackson’s warm, opportunistic energy as Wolf sets off Toney’s enigmatic calm.
Nothing is perfect—Risa isn’t particularly well-developed, and hearing her be told “you ought to take it as a compliment” about sexual comments is bound to raise hackles no matter when the play was written or set, as is Memphis’ befuddlement that his wife left him even though he bought her hella stuff.
The gorgeous, mostly hyper-naturalistic set design from Misha Kachman has intriguing splashes of oddity—set pieces at just-off angles, a telephone pole that has crept inside the restaurant, an intruder from the encroaching outside. Likewise, director Juliette Carrillo builds in increasingly poetic moments of interstitial physicality throughout the show; reality is always punctuated with the inexplicable, no matter how you resist it. However, some noticeably jerky music and light cues seemed on-the-nose—a loping “stranger comes to town” bass line when Sterling first enters, yellow light and plaintive strings as he coaxes Hambone to say, “united we stand, divided we fall.”
Any play that gets you thinking without telling you what to think is a gift, and this production serves Wilson’s work marvelously. Is there any moral virtue in following the rules of a system actively working against you? Are you better served by exploiting those rules if you can, or by fighting against them? How have Black people historically been cut out of progress to which they are integral? What do you need to believe in, to get through your life?
Figure that last one out later. For now, pay attention to this play with no heavy-handed big events—only small, monumental ones.