Two Trains Running

by August Wilson
Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges
Featuring Darian Dauchan, Kash Goins, Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., Lakisha May, E. Roger Mitchell, U.R., Damien J. Wallace
Arden Theatre Co., 40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia
March 10, 2016 – April 10, 2016 

production site

[This is the first of five reviews for shows viewed in Philadelphia during the April 2016 annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.]

(L-R) Damian J.Wallace (Holloway), Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. (Memphis), E. Roger Mitchell (West). Image by Mark Garvin.

In a neighborhood eatery in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1969, seven characters find meaning with each other and their limited life and job prospects, seek a bit of retribution, and share hopes and dreams. Memphis (Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.) owns the diner setting that he operates along with waitress Risa (Lakisha May). The diner is visited by young numbers runner Wolf (Darian Dauchan), long-time local resident and patron Holloway (Damian J. Wallace), ex-con Sterling (U.R.) searching for a job and his next step in life, mentally slow and ethically stalwart Hambone (Kash Goins), and local funeral director West (E. Roger Mitchell). Mr. West’s occupation provides our Chekhovian loaded pistol in the play — we know immediately that someone will be dying so that he will ply his trade before the show ends. And director Raelle Myrick-Hodges keeps all possibilities gently potent. Yet this story is a romance rather than a tragedy, and the Philadelphia ensemble tells the story with grace.

The social and political and racial tensions in the midst of the economic realities of Pittsburgh’s Hill District are far from the small town dynamics of the world Wilson has crafted in Two Trains Running. This neighborhood, settled in the boundary zone between Pittsburgh’s downtown and the university area that houses the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions, felt racial tensions of course, but this dramatic world as crafted by Wilson is a small town with its own rules and traditions. We’re not working through the issues of the day but living with these characters the lives that are possible given social upheavals and limited job prospects. This play, the sixth of August Wilson’s nine “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays set  in various 20th century decades in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, is presented with charm and nuance by Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company.

Two Trains Running is a world of romance (with some sizzle between Sterling and Risa) and righteous indignation (involving Hambone’s perception that he was stiffed years before in payment for a day’s work) and some hopes for redemption (Holloway dreams of returning to the South and a wife and business he was forced to leave some years before — as he says “every day they got two trains running, every day” — and Memphis prepares for hearings to argue for a fair price for his property that is being condemned in the name of urban renewal). The script tells a local tale with local villains and heroes, rather than social injustices of the era, with doses of magical realism in tales about visits to an off stage character who tells futures and calms souls.

Set designer David P Gordon has crafted a spacious and well-worn dinner interior for our characters to inhabit. A bit scuffed but not untidy on the inside, and circled above with projections and images and a sound scape by Mikaal Sulaiman that clearly places us in 1969 American culture. Video designer Nicholas Hussong provides interscenic films of documentary clips and iconic images (Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and others). While playwright Wilson does not foreground the world of the 1960s, this pleasant but solid set design does, and which may overburden what is a more gently told tale. With such powerful imagery and possibly distracting historical realism, the off stage presence of Aunt Ester, the mythic character who is over 300 years old (and this is reported by several characters as truth not fiction) is out of balance. Our characters aren’t marching for Civil Rights or against the War in Viet Nam, but are focused on living their lives.

Two Trains is ultimately full of humor and a life-affirming spirit that triumphs in the face of overwhelming odds, though set a year after the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination that transformed black neighborhoods in a number of U.S. cities (Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. among them). Memphis Lee’s diner may face extinction in the face of declining neighborhood population, but the diner regulars in this story support, laugh, scheme, love, plan, and stand together.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 15, 2016)

Playwright | August Wilson
Director | Raelle Myrick-Hodges
Set Design | David P. Gordon
Costume Design | Alison Roberts
Lighting Design | Xavier Pierce
Sound Design | Mikaal Sulaiman
Video Design | Nicholas Hussong

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