The agitation that shook the 1960s doesn’t rattle Memphis Lee’s diner, or any on-stage portion of Two Trains Running, yet there’s a sense that change is approaching at breakneck speed. Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1969, August Wilson’s play is more interested in the everyday lives of African-Americans than in the predominant stories of the civil rights movement. But while Two Trains Running is situated in the quotidian, it is still deeply concerned with the political sphere. The seventh play in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 works encompassing every decade of the 20th century, Two Trains Running is a microscopic look into the ’60s, and its current run on Arena Stage remembers how the routines and lives of the period changed at the hands of time.
At the Mead Center for American Theater’s Arena Stage, the cast members collide under the direction of Juliette Carrillo. A weathered diner owner, Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee), tries in vain to run a tight ship in spite of possible government seizure of the property, but his defiant, one-woman kitchen staff, Risa (Nicole Lewis), persistently resists work. Lines are blurred between servers and customers at the diner, and Lee and Risa interact with their regulars—an ex-con named Sterling (Carlton Byrd), a snappy townie named Holloway (David Emerson Toney), and the suave numbers runner, Wolf (Reginald André Jackson)—with such sass that Lee’s diner feels more like an inharmonious family kitchen than a legitimate business.
There’s no doubt the characters have chemistry, but their banter is relentless. Discursive dialogue often derails the play’s flow, demanding intent concentration from first-time viewers, and the cast doesn’t pull off transitions between humorous and serious moments until the second act. Although the play’s attempt to incorporate weighty themes is admirable, Two Trains Running often feels pulled in several directions. Lee lacks subtlety when preaching Memphis’ backstory to diners, and it’s unlikely that deliveries will be perfected in the show’s month-long run. Toney’s exuberant portrayal of Holloway, though, while not immune to clunkiness, invites the audience back in for a laugh after moments of confusion.
Two Trains Running gets all its horsepower from setting, not unlike the other plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, but it calls for real action in place of diner-booth retellings of off-stage deaths and debacles. That said, there’s a magnetism surrounding the whole affair that captures the decade’s pulse. Every character copes with injustice in his or her own way, whether it be through realism, like Lee who is unexpectant of miracles, or idealism, like Sterling who depends too much on luck and empty words. Not all the characters, however, are fully-formed. Risa, the play’s only female role, never blossoms. People whisper behind her back in Act I, alluding to a shadowy past, but her biggest conflict turns out to be a lifetime of objectification by men. In spite of her insistence on being single, her independence is undone by the play’s lovably corny conclusion. Hambone (Frank Riley III), on the other hand, is the most intriguing character despite having the least to say. Every morning Hambone stands outside a white butcher’s door, awaiting the ham he was promised for painting the butcher’s fence a decade earlier. Although often taken for foolishness, Hambone’s demands contain a greater message of resilience for the rest of the community.
While the play’s takes on gender are not quite as progressive as its conversations on race, and its attempts to capture Pittsburgh’s grit through large doses of explicit language can be more distracting than powerful, Two Trains Running still manages to be endearing. Byrd’s goofy performance as Sterling rightfully wins a few laughs, and the play is ultimately more soulful than saccharine, balancing the blues with gleeful humor.
Arena Stage’s rendition of Two Trains Running is not quite a must-see, but Wilson’s story is a must-tell, even while overshadowed by his better works. The themes are unfortunately relevant, as its commentary on police profiling and gun violence reminds us, and are especially urgent in D.C. where gentrification continually transforms the racial makeup of the city. At its brightest moments, Two Trains Running explores the complexity of change. It reminds us that the path towards justice isn’t linear, and sometimes even those who demand progress just want to slow down, sink into a red linoleum booth, and scarf down short ribs at their neighborhood diner. And in hard times, that little bit of comfort can be exactly what we need.