Review: ‘Two Trains Running’ by August Wilson at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

By Bob Hoover

After The Piano Lesson, the 1986 play that earned August Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize, he was ready to move on to the next chapter in his Pittsburgh cycle. The inspiration would be this line:

“Then I was going out and buy me a 30.06, come on back to Jackson and drive up to Mr. Stovall’s house and honk the horn. Only this time I wasn’t waving.”

That threat of revenge was the spark for Two Trains Running, now at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through June 19. (The speaker is Memphis Lee, the play’s central character, who was run out of his Mississippi farm by the racist Stovall.)

I am tempted to name this review Four Trains Running because I saw the play last month at the University of Chicago’s Court Theater, a Tony-Award-winning regional company. Comparisons are hard to miss.

Both productions have their positives and negatives.

The Court Theater’s set followed Wilson’s description of a small Hill District diner with “four stools, a counter, a pay phone, and three booths. . .,” a confined space decorated with Pirate and Steeler banners and a photo of Roberto Clemente. The coffee cups had his number 21 on them while overhead, a demolition crane loomed in the background. The year is 1969, when the last pieces of the Hill’s destruction were in the works.

The Public’s set was much larger, with tables rather than booths spread out, six stools, and little decoration to connect it to Pittsburgh. A section of the audience sat behind and beside the stage. The effect emphasized the theatricality of the play, downplaying the personal struggles of the characters.

In response, the Court’s actors were restrained and pensive while the Public’s cast overacted, now and then stepping on each other’s lines or rushing their speeches past some of Wilson’s captivating dialogue.

Bryan D. Coats plays Memphis in the Public’s production, a conflicted Black man whose conservative, play-by-the-rules character hides a thirst for violent revenge against white men who grabbed his farm, killing his beloved mule in the process.

His anger slowly boils over the course of the play, but in this time of civil rights riots and the Black Power movement, his fight is personal. He rejects activism and the memory of Malcolm X and puts his faith in hard, honest work through his diner. But his building is due to be demolished by the city, and he demands a large price for it. He Even hires a white attorney to argue his case to the city. Coats’ opening night performance went over the top in the second act, pushing Memphis’ phlegmatic demeanor a little too far.

Like the other characters in his diner, Memphis is at heart a decent, forgiving person, balanced by that familiar Wilson character, the elderly philosopher Holloway, 65, played by Justin Emeka, who is also the director and the resident director of the Public.

Holloway introduces the essential Wilson metaphor, Aunt Ester, whom the playwright called “the most significant persona of the cycle.” Her age – 329 in this play – represents the history of slavery in America. Ensconced behind her red door at 1839 Wylie Ave., she brings wisdom to the struggling lives of Pittsburgh’s Blacks. That address is inspired by the year of the Amistad rebellion.

Emeka gave an understated, even-tempered performance, embodying his character’s careful avoidance of trouble thanks to the words of Aunt Ester. He influences Memphis and Sterling, an aimless young ex-con, to seek her help.

Sterling arrives at the diner after a five-year sentence for bank robbery, hoping to find a new life and a gun to help that new life along.

First produced in 1990, Two Trains Running seems even more relevant in 2022, this year of constant gun violence.

Says Holloway (edited):

You can’t even use the word (Black man) and ‘gun’ in the same sentence. You say the word ‘gun’ in the same sentence with the word (Black man) and you in trouble. The white man panic. . . He ain’t had nothing but guns for the last 500 years. . . got the atomic bomb and everything. Accuse you of sabotage, disturbing the peace, inciting to riot, plotting to overthrow the government and anything else they can think of.

University of Pittsburgh graduate Brenden Peifer seems too young to play Sterling but earnestly shows his character’s relentless optimism that he can make a go of it, especially if he wins the heart of Risa, the young cook, and server who faces constant complaining from Memphis.

Wilson created sympathetic female characters who faced two kinds of oppression because of their race and sex. Risa has mutilated her legs to scare away the attention of men, but Sterling is not to be denied. She was treated at Western Psychiatric Hospital to no effect.

Melissie Clark seems to grow into the role of Risa as the play proceeds, finding the courage to stand up to Memphis and the kindness to reach out to the play’s most troubled character, Hambone.

His mistreatment at the hands of the white Lutz, owner of a meat market, drove the simple-minded guy to madness. He says constantly, “He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham.” Ananias J. Dixon fills the thankless role with quiet desperation.

Lutz hired Hambone more than nine years ago to paint his fence and promised him a ham for payment but would only give him a chicken instead, sending Hambone over the edge.

Two Trains Running courses with life, but death is a constant presence as well in the nearby West Funeral Home, where a major showing is being held. It’s the funeral of Prophet Samuel, a man first known as Preacher Samuel, until Aunt Ester showed him a better way.

Funeral director West, a regular customer at the diner, also deals in real estate and wants to buy out Memphis at a low price. Enter Wali Jamal, Pittsburgh’s leading Wilson play performer who’s appeared in all of his ten plays, Jamal is a practiced hand at the playwright’s characters and delivers a smooth performance.

Wilson understood that playing the numbers was a long Hill tradition, going back to the 1930s with Gus Greenlee. Homewood native Brian Starks gives the cocky numbers runner Wolf added swagger, decked out in a variety of garish 1960s clothes designed by Alethia Moore-Del Monaco.

The Public’s version of Two Trains Running – its first production was 1994 – is a solid, respectful production of a Wilson play that would benefit from a tighter, more focused treatment of this curiously optimistic work. The set, designed by Richard Morris Jr., is too wide and open, giving the actors too much space to work with.

The play is not Wilson’s most powerful and moving but is always worth sitting through its more than three hours of humor and compassion.

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