by SOPHIE KERMAN
From the very first moments of Two Trains Running, the pace of the action is metered out by the slow scuff of diner waitress Risa’s shoes as she crosses from the kitchen to the tables and back again. Risa (Crystal Fox) walks as though she is burdened by much more than the weight of her ample derriere. If it is hard for her to move, the civil rights movement seems to have moved equally slowly for the residents of Pittsburgh in 1969. Although the Penumbra Theatre Company has created an extremely faithful portrayal of life in the late 1960’s, this historical accuracy also poses significant practical problems. Yes, change takes time, but should all of that time be presented on stage?
The play, part of August Wilson‘s 20th Century Cycle chronicling black American life each decade from 1900-2000, tells of seven very different characters whose lives converge each day on a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Although the plot revolves around an eminent domain claim – the city of Pittsburgh wants to redevelop the neighborhood – it is clear from the start that the play is about the characters. Each one is carefully imagined, with a distinctive physicality and particular mannerisms. Holloway (Abdul Salaam El Razzac) speaks with the authority and wry humor of a man who has made it to 65 in a neighborhood where too many end up in prison or dead, while Memphis (James Craven), who owns the restaurant, moves with a determination fueled by years of stolen opportunities.
The characters’ realism, however, sometimes works to their disadvantage. Because he speaks quickly, as a real restaurant owner might, Memphis’s words often get lost. And Risa’s constant scuffing sometimes drowns out the dialogue – but this is a flaw in costuming, not characterization: if only her shoes were a bit quieter!
The staging also undermines the action, because actors deliver their dialogue directly out to the audience so often that the characters lose all possibility for connection. For instance, the Act II romance between Risa and ex-con Sterling (James T. Alfred) feels out of the blue when their previous interactions involved so little direct eye contact. I speculate that the technique is meant to highlight the characters’ isolation and alienation from one another, but the result is a production that plays like a series of interconnected monologues rather than a cohesive whole.
It is Hambone (Ahanti Young) who breaks the mold. A mentally handicapped man who has spent nine years demanding a ham he is owed for painting a white man’s fence, Hambone’s presence requires a reaction from the other characters (whether of anger or compassion) and elicits the most human moments of the play.
It is a shame that so much of the play’s momentum fizzles out, because it is a play that one really wants to like. The actors inhabit their characters fully and skillfully, and the set by Vicki Smith is so convincing you can almost smell the coffee and muffins. And most importantly, the subject matter deals with an unarguably pivotal moment in history. The dissatisfying experience of viewing the 3-plus hours of “Two Trains” is perplexing, particularly knowing that this is a revival of director Lou Bellamy‘s 2007 Obie-winning production in New York. When the audience leapt to its feet for a standing ovation, I wondered whether they were applauding the play, or only its punchline: because although the destination is worth getting to, the journey sure takes a while.