STAGE REVIEW : Frozen in Time : ‘Two Trains’ Is Wilson’s Latest Look at African-American Experience


Driving out of Lexington, Ky., in the mid-1970s, this writer stopped for directions at a small cafe on the fringes of town. The place, with its neighborhood regulars, was like the set of Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life.” Frozen in time.

It’s much the same feeling you get watching August Wilson’s structurally old-fashioned “Two Trains Running,” which opened Thursday at the Old Globe. This latest play in Wilson’s examination of the African-American experience in selected decades of the 20th Century takes place in 1969, during the anti-Vietnam protests and the civil rights movement. But you’d hardly know it from the ‘20s interior of Memphis Lee’s old Pittsburgh diner or the conversations of its regulars.

Wolf (Anthony Chisholm) is the local numbers runner who tries to use the public phone booth in Memphis’ diner as his office. Holloway (Ed Hall) is the resident philosopher, good for a comment on just about everything. And Sterling (Larry Fishburne), fresh out of jail for a bungled robbery, is an eager young man who courts the reluctant Risa (Ella Joyce), the restaurant’s none-too-swift waitress and general factotum whose legs bear the tribal scars of a strange self-mutilation.


The restaurant sits across the street from West’s mortuary and Lutz’s slaughterhouse, in a neighborhood targeted for gentrification. This means Memphis (Al White), who was dispossessed once before, will be losing his building and his business to the wrecking ball.

West (Chuck Patterson), the shrewd undertaker from across the street, keeps popping in to make Memphis offers on the building that Memphis instinctively resists. And dropping in from time to non sequitur time is the mentally retarded Hambone (Sullivan Walker), a neighborhood mascot who acquired his name and his fixation when he was denied a promised ham by the owner of the slaughterhouse in payment for a job well done.

These regulars are a much livelier bunch than the Lexington group, but time has stopped here too. These are lives going in circles that they seem unable to break.

Unlike Wilson’s previous plays, “Two Trains” relates much more tangentially to its decade. The ‘60s are happening out there somewhere, but not in here, where it’s more like the ‘40s. In contrast, you could feel the context in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (set in the early 1900s), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (‘20s) and even “The Piano Lesson” (‘30s) and “Fences” (‘50s), his more explosive Pulitzer Prize-winners.

The passion, metaphysical threads and/or strong ancestral connections that enliven Wilson’s earlier work are almost entirely absent from “Two Trains.” The only totem is the much-talked-about 322-year-old Aunt Ester, whose birth nearly coincides with the birth of slavery in America and whose oracular advice is perceived as a way out of the darkness.

Lloyd Richards, who’s staged all of Wilson’s earlier plays, has too much indulged the circular rhythms of this one. Although it picks up a head of steam in the second act, “Two Trains” is Wilson’s “The Iceman Cometh” minus a towering character such as Hickey. It unspools very slowly, propelled entirely by talk.

That’s not quite enough. One doesn’t expect Wilson to repeat himself (he doesn’t), but one has come to rely on one of his great strengths, which is the ability to tell a good story at the same time that he marries metaphor and reality, context to larger context. He has never been short-winded, but the torrent of words this time is delivered in such undifferentiated tones that it paradoxically shuts out the music.

Tony Fanning did the beautifully detailed set with its dilapidated molded tin ceiling and tired fixtures, nicely lit by Geoff Korf who tempers the rigorous naturalism with a thin layer of unreality.

The acting is uniformly fine--subtly comical in Joyce’s impossibly sluggish Risa who develops a subtle sexiness as love blooms, and absolutely shattering in Walker’s bewildering portrait of Hambone. But despite these assets and its impressive credentials, “Two Trains” is a hard sit and in its present shape, plays like a three-hour vignette.

“Two Trains Running,” Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 21. $17.50-$28.50; (619) 239-2255. Running time: 3 hours. ‘Two Trains Running’

Al White: Memphis

Anthony Chisholm: Wolf

Ella Joyce: Risa

Ed Hall: Holloway

Sullivan Walker: Hambone

Larry Fishburne: Sterling

Chuck Patterson: West

A Yale Repertory Theatre production of a new play by August Wilson. Director Lloyd Richards. Set Tony Fanning. Lights Geoff Korf. Costumes Chrisi Karvonides. Sound consultant Jeff Ladman. Stage manager Karen L. Carpenter. Assistant stage manager Robert Drake.