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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Two Trains Running

Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back hold up.— Memphis
2 trains
Dorian Missick andMontae Russell
The opening words of the stage directions of August Wilson's play Two Trains Running specify the menu price of eats at Memphis's diner: Beans w/corn muffin: $.65 Chicken w/ 2 sides $2.45; Meatloaf w/ 2 sides $2.35. The food is referenced in the play itself (though the prices are not). Nonetheless, the chalkboard above the counter of John Iacovelli's set at the Matrix Theatre reproduces these figures to the number. From booths to parquet, from payphone to the wall photos, Wilson takes us back to 1969, to the end of one decade and to the brink of a quiet revolution.

You have to admire a miniaturist, particularly one as masterful as Wilson. That sparsely filled diner in the heart of Pittsburgh's Hill District is its own self-contained little world. From the stools of this eatery, people make their fortunes, plan their futures, and consider how to make peace with their pasts.

Outside, a few doors down, sits a bustling funeral parlor owned by a man who buys up real estate, and a butcher shop run by a dishonest proprietor. Further away is the home of the apocryphal Aunt Ester, the patron saint of many a Wilson play. She casts a spell over Two Trains without ever putting in an appearance. Some very interesting men and women lurk on the periphery of Two Trains, but the folks who shuttle in and out of Memphis's diner have some heft of their own. And plenty of stories.

Anybody taking on Wilson has to bring an A-game, particularly in the service of a work as rambling and talky as this one. Michele Shay, who tackled the playwright's King Hedley II last year at the Matrix, recognizes the playwright's beats and breaths, and her cast teases out the weight of Two Trains with real grace. Wilson and his longtime director Lloyd Richards had the good grace to attract Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson for the original production at the Yale Rep (Fishburne later won a Tony for his work in the play). A harder lift than the often-produced Fences, Two Trains may never attract that magnitude of casting again. But at the Matrix, Montae Russell, Dorian Missick, Adolphus Ward, Nija Okoro, Terell Tillford, Ellis E. Williams and Alex E. Morris are plenty formidable. Many of them have multiple Wilson credits and their familiarity shows. They've played these instruments before.

Longtime diner proprietor Memphis (played by Montae Russell) sees change coming. He's ready for it, but on his terms. The neighborhood is gentrifying and his establishment is targeted for demolition by the city. Once his price is met, Memphis is gone. And does the diner's impending doom worry any of his longtime clientele? No, it does not.

Elderly sage Holloway (Adolphus Ward) could probably find a perch in any establishment in the neighborhood, including at the home of Aunt Ester. Wolf (Terrell Tilford) runs his numbers game out the diner and hustles when he can. Brain-addled Hambone (Ellis Williams) makes a daily pilgrimage from Lutz's meat market &emdash; where he futilely demands a ham he is owed from a long-ago paint job & emdash; to the diner. There Hambone is tended to by Memphis's only other employee, the kindhearted waitress Risa (Nija Okoro) who slashed up her legs with a razor blade in an effort to keep the men away from her. Funeral home director West (Alex Morris) drops in periodically trying to persuade Memphis to sell him the property.

The newest visitor is Sterling (Dorian Missick), a young man fresh out of the penitentiary. Sterling will take any job, sell any item, or run any racket to salt away a few bucks. The man seems a coin flip away from either striking it rich or ending up back behind bars and, truthfully, he seems to be OK with either outcome. In the meantime, Sterling invites Risa to a black power rally celebrating Malcolm X.

Not very much actually happens during the two and a half hours that make up the traffic of this tale. Some characters take action or leave the diner to pay a visit; others bide their time. With the exception of Risa and Hambone, every character we meet delivers at least one lengthy monologue that cracks a window onto his history. Collectively it makes for a leisurely symphony &emdash; blues with a whiff of jazz &emdash; which director Shay and her cast orchestrate expertly.

There's some exciting, unreachable mystery in Okoro's Risa, a character who harbors the diner's sugar for coffee (unless she is asked for it). Risa has probably rejected every man in the play at one point or another, but Okoro handles her slow opening-up to Missick's Sterling with great delicacy. Ward's eternally wise Holloway functions as a Wilson archetype, the stand-in for Aunt Ester. Hearing Ward recount a tale of how his grandfather died of natural causes or uttering the line “I'm sixty-five years old and I got that way by staying out of people's business” is watching a pro in action.

The fires that drive Russell's Memphis and Missick's Sterling make for a study in contrasts. Both men &emdash one middle aged, the other young &emdash; are on the brink of detonation. Yet both Russell and Missick cut through the heaviness and access a bit of humor. And Williams brings the requisite innocence and a nice bit of sweetness to Hambone.

As solid as the actors are, the star of Two Trains Running is the diner itself and the world outside its doors that is changing faster than most people can handle. In such a world, even Hambone can learn to recite the phrase "Black is beautiful" one word at a time.

Through August Wilson's masterful prism and with Shay's assistance, black is turbulent, disquieting, surprising, uncomfortable. And, yes, beautiful.

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Two Trains Running by August Wilson
Directed by Michele Shay
Cast: Dorian Missick, Alex Morris, Nija Okoro, Montae Russell, Terrell Tilford, Adolphus Ward, Ellis Williams
Set Design: John Iacovelli
Costume Design: Mylette Nora
Lighting Design: Brian Gale
Sound Design: Jeff Gardner
Wig and Make-up Design: Shelia Dorn
Stage Manager: Ed DeShae
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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