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Review: In August Wilson's 'Two Trains Running,' a collision course with urban renewal

Review: In August Wilson's 'Two Trains Running,' a collision course with urban renewal
Montae Russell is struggling diner owner Memphis, right, and Terrell Tilford his numbers runner, Wolf, in the August Wilson play "Two Trains Running" at the Matrix. (Tiffany Judkins)

August Wilson wrote some of our era’s most extraordinary plays, namely his Pittsburgh Cycle, alternately known as the Century Cycle — plays that dramatize the African American experience decade by decade, throughout the 20th century.

The seventh play in that cycle, “Two Trains Running,” from 1992, can be seen in a remarkable revival — a visiting production at the Matrix Theatre that does full honor to the late Wilson’s timeless genius.

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As is the case with most of Wilson’s plays, “Two Trains Running” transpires in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It’s 1969, and a once-vibrant community has become a blighted wasteland undergoing a massive (and historically catastrophic) urban renewal project.

As the neighborhood’s murder rate skyrockets, funeral parlor owner West (Alex Morris) enjoys a corresponding rise in business. That’s not the case for his neighbor Memphis (Montae Russell), whose diner once did a turn-away business but is now on the skids. The city wants to take over Memphis’ place, but Memphis isn’t selling unless he’s offered what seems like an impossibly inflated price.

Memphis’ few regulars include home-spun philosophizer Holloway (Adolphus Ward), an anchor of calm amidst roiling change; numbers runner Wolf (Terrell Tilford), a dapper womanizer with a lonely heart; waitress Risa (Nija Okoro), who has mutilated her own legs to escape unwanted male attention; and Sterling (Dorian Missick), an irrepressible schemer, just out of prison, jockeying for his place in an inimical society.

Then there’s Hambone (Ellis E. Williams), a poor soul who, for almost 10 years, has been demanding a ham he is owed from a white store owner, obsessively reiterating, “He gonna give me my ham.”

The deceptively slight action primarily deals with Memphis’ efforts to bow the city to his will, Sterling’s attempts to woo the man-shy Risa, and Hambone’s never-ending quest for his ham. Talk is the order of this evening, and what wondrous talk it is — funny, crisp dialogue worthy of classic comedy and monologues of dreams deferred that will break your heart.

The design elements — John Iacovelli’s beautifully detailed set, Brian Gale’s mood-setting lighting, Jeff Gardner’s evocative sound and Mylette Nora’s witty period costumes — authentically evoke Memphis’ down-at-heels establishment.

However, the heart of this production is the superb performances under the direction of Michele Shay, a veteran Wilson performer and director who was nominated for a Tony for her 1996 performance in Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” The actors give such towering performances that to single one out for praise would be a fool’s errand. They are an ensemble in the truest sense of the word — a family of equals who support one another generously and magnificently.

Sophina Brown, who produced last year’s celebrated “King Hedley II,” is on record as intending to produce every play in Wilson’s cycle. Judging by this offering, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Two Trains Running’

Where: Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends March 3

Tickets: $35

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