I know that August Wilson is a great playwright in the same way I know that Notre Dame is a majestic cathedral, but whenever I re-encounter his work, I find myself trying to figure out exactly why it's so great. In past reviews, I've used words like "rich" and "multi-layered" and made comparisons to music -- and that's accurate enough, but it's also a copout. Wilson's plays are built from an accretion of individually unremarkable details. Each tends to feature a group of people interacting in a specific environment: a home, a cab rank or -- as in Two Trains Running -- a grubby diner. These people are losers, jokers, misfits and eccentrics. Many have been damaged by the culture in which they live; they respond by accommodating, struggling, attempting to game the system or fiercely challenging its inequities. There's not usually a lot of plot; the power and fire is in the language. But even the language doesn't seem remarkable at first. You won't amaze or delight anyone by quoting a line or two of Wilson. You won't find aphorisms, or dazzling moments of insight, or the intensely concentrated use of words we expect of poetry. But listen to an entire speech or, better yet, hear it in the unfolding context of the play, and you'll be dazzled. The artistry lies in the truth of the dialogue, and also its rhythms and repetitions. You'll sense an oceanic undertow, surging back and forth beneath the text. Wilson is a conjuror, coaxing wonder and transcendence from the grittiest and most banal details of everyday life.
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When Two Trains Running first appeared in 1992, viewers hadn't had the privilege of seeing the rest of Wilson's ten-play cycle about life in Pittsburgh's gritty Hill District unfolding like a darkly gleaming tapestry. They hadn't met Aunt Esther, the centuries-old woman who represents the essence of the black experience in America, as we finally do in the ninth play of the sequence, Gem of the Ocean. But she haunts Two Trains Running all the same, revered for her ability to cleanse souls.
The year is 1969. In the diner, we meet the enigmatic waitress, Risa, who is distant and defensive with the customers and has given much of her hard-earned money to a self-styled prophet, Prophet Samuel, who has just died as the play opens. The garrulous owner of the diner, Memphis, knows his building is about to be demolished by the city and is fighting with everything he has for a fair price; over the course of the evening, he reveals his personal history in a couple of smoldering monologues. Also on hand are numbers runner Wolf; Holloway, who manages to remain good-humored while railing constantly against injustice; and funeral director West -- the one man in the group who's financially comfortable. Oh, and Hambone, mentally deranged and harping on the ham owed to him by a white businessman. Enter Sterling, fresh out of prison and looking to make a life for himself that doesn't involve too much hard work. The outlook for most of these characters is bleak, but there's warmth and humanism in Wilson's worldview, and a strong element of redemption.
Two Trains Running
Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street
Presented by Shadow Theatre Company through March 3, 303-837-9355, www.shadowtheatre.com.
The trouble with the Shadow Theatre Company production is that it's played at such a high pitch. Under the direction of Jeffrey Nickelson, there's never a moment when this cast -- composed of talented and appealing people -- seems to be simply living rather than acting. They shout, slam the countertop, grimace, weep and shove chairs, and sometimes you find yourself tuning them out, the way you once did your mother when she went on a tear. Hambone is not only mentally impaired, but he apparently also has cerebral palsy, so he's constantly in movement: jittering, shrugging, rubbing a spoon along his shirt, head lolling, eyes rolling. During his last silent scene on stage, he suffers so conspicuously and twitches so unceasingly that it's a relief when he finally shuffles off. The great storm of emotion that Nickelson has evoked from his actors obscures the genuine feeling and music of the text.
Still, every production of a great play yields some moments of illumination, and this one is no exception. The cast's speed and energy make the most of some of the funnier moments -- as when Risa sweeps the floor around Wolf's feet, and Wolf, a superstitious man, leaps to his feet every time she brushes his shoe, scattering salt from a shaker. Or Memphis's mockery of the funeral director's "leak-proof" guarantee: "You gonna dig up the casket twenty years later to see if it's leaking and go back and tell West and get your hundred dollars back?" Damion Hoover's twitchy, crazy Sterling has a couple of riveting moments -- tellingly, they're quiet ones -- and his scenes with Jada Roberts's shielded but vulnerable Risa are touching. During these moments, you can see these two trains ceaselessly running between past and future, old South and inhospitable North, life and death.