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A CurtainUp Review
Two Trains Running

I’d rather believe if I rubbed Prophet Samuel’s head I’d get rich. That make more sense to me than to talk about somebody being three hundred and twenty – two years old.— Memphis

 Leon Addison Brown as Hambone and January Lavoy as Risa in Two Trains Running at Signature Theatre Company.
(L to R) Leon Addison Brown as Hambone and January Lavoy as Risa in Two Trains Running at Signature Theatre Company.
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Signature Theatre Company is presenting a splendid production of Two Trains Running, the second play in its season devoted to the plays of the late August Wilson. With the publication and production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) and The Piano Lesson (1990), Wilson established himself as the foremost dramatic chronicler of 20th century African-American life. When Two Trains Running opened in 1992, it was the fifth of a ten play series that he was destined to write before his untimely death in 2005. Each one of his plays has proven to be an extraordinary adjunct to a specific decade in American history as well as to dramatic literature.

Perhaps for the circumscribed story it has to tell Two Trains Running is a little long at almost three hours and fifteen minutes; but then again, Wilson was not a playwright who believed that less is more, especially when giving us more could mean so much more. On more than one occasion, the play also gets just a little too preachy and yet Wilson’s wonderfully written characters always seem to emerge to enthrall us and keep us glued to their words and actions. Even in relation to the vivid characters in his other plays, the habitués who gather at Memphis’s (Frankie Faison) neighborhood restaurant/coffee shop in the mostly black Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1969 seem to resonate with a palpable immediacy. What a wonderful experience it is when bursts of brilliant acting tip the scale in favor of an exceptionally rich and rewarding evening of theatrical fireworks.

Under Lou Bellamy's direction, seven actors create a world that one is not going to easily forget. Gripped by the reality that his diner is ear-marked for demolition, dismayed by the lack of business and the deteriorating neighborhood, and worried that he may not get what it is worth, Memphis, nevertheless, has control of his bit of the world. Faison’s performance is fueled with a volcanic energy that drives the entire play.

Ed Wheeler is excellent as West, the all business, no nonsense and very successful local funeral director currently beset with controlling the throngs of disruptive followers turning out to see the laid out body of their cult prophet Samuels. Ron Cephas Jones tells us everything we need to know about Wolf, the big man on the street. Aptly named for his hip body language and his ogling eyes, Wolf is the local numbers runner who uses Memphis’ restaurant and telephone to conduct business and flirt with the diner’s adamantly disinterested waitress Risa. Leon Addison Brown is touching as the ranting Hambone, the harmless derelict driven mad by the white butcher across the street who promised him a ham for painting a fence but, instead, gave him a chicken.

Also hanging out for lack of a job at the restaurant is Sterling, a likeable, charismatic and incurably romantic young local man recently released after serving five years in jail for robbing a bank. It’s hard not to root for him as he keeps his optimistic eye on the future as doggedly as he does on the restaurant’s pretty but ever dour waitress Risa (January Lavoy). That he wins our hearts and our support says a lot about Coleman’s performance.

As we have come to expect in countless bar-room and road-house plays, talk supercedes action, characters manipulate characters, and these people affect one another for good or bad. What isn’t superceded is Wilson’s way of planting within each character’s humorously earthy and immodestly direct speeches the artfully integrated symbolic lyricism that was to become his signature style.

.Arthur French stands apart as Holloway, a retired house-painter and local self-appointed philosopher (his advice to anyone who will listen always includes making a visit to Aunt Ester an allegedly 322 year-old neighborhood seer, whom we get to know better in the 9th play Gem of the Ocean). Even given the exceptionally fine ensemble performing, French plays Holloway with a wise and courageous eloquence that often moves us close to cheering. Holloway’s numerous discourses on life and the living of it become the anchor for this group of people seeking solidarity in the midst of their grievances and the social injustice of the era.

Director Bellamy, the founder and artistic director of Saint Paul’s Penumbra Theatre, known as one of America’s premiere theaters dedicated to the dramatic exploration of the African-American experience, lets his observant direction go awry in only one instance. There is no reason in the world why Bellamy should allow Risa to move about as if she were a somnambulist. Lavoy does seem to come out of her stupor late in the play, but her unrelieved stone-like solemnity hovers over the play like a joke. It’s the only jarring note and an unfortunate digression from reality in an otherwise splendid production.

Derek McLane’s setting is the essence of reality: the stools in front of the counter with its container of muffins, and especially the chalk sign on the wall that says meat loaf with two sides can be purchased for $2.35. The play’s message is best defined by Wilson’s own words: "There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone."

Two Trains Running premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater, under the direction of Lloyd Richards. It opened in New York at the Walter Kerr Theatre on April 13, 1992 and closed on August 30, 1992 for a total of 160 performances.

Coming Up at the Signature's August Wilson season is King Hedley II (February 20 – April 15, 2007). For a pleasant, inexpensive place to eat right next door to the Signature, see the Far West section in CurtainUp's NYC Restaurant Notes

Links to Other August Wilson Plays reviewed at CurtainUp.
Gem of the Ocean (Los Angeles & New York)
Gem of the Ocean (London)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Los Angeles)
King Hedley IIt (LA)
King Hedley II// (Broadway)
King Hedley II (London)
King Hedley II (Philadelphia}
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Radio Golf (LA)

Two Trains Running
  By August Wilson
  Directed by Lou Bellamy
Set Design: Derek McLane
  Costume Design: Mathew J. Lefebvre
  Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel
  Sound Design: Brett R. Jarvis
  Running Time: 3 hours 15 minutes including intermission
  Signature Theater Company’s Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd Street. (212) 244-7529,
  Tickets: at $15 for the announced run of the show were made possible by the lead sponsorship of Time Warner. The run quickly sold out and tickets for the two-week extension are $55 (regular price).
  From 11/07/06 and extended twice before official opening to 1/14/07--and again to 1/28/07; opening 12/03
  Performances schedule is Tuesdays at 7 PM; Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturdays @ 2 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Wednesday Matinees: December 20 and 27 at 2 PM. (No performances on December 24 at 8 PM. additional performances added on December 10 and 17 at 7 PM)
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on November 29, 2006 press performance
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