- Courtesy Of Hubert Schriebl
- From left: Beethovan Oden, Bernard Gilbert, Raphael Peacock, Eboni Flowers, Cary Hite and Guiesseppe Jones
Reading a play is a chance to respond to the words; watching a play is a chance to discover that words are actions. Dialogue spoken onstage shows the effect of words on people, and playwright August Wilson is a master at using everyday language to reveal the emotional depth of a story through characters who listen as much as they speak. Meaning registers in the reactions.
In Weston Playhouse's magnificent production of Wilson's Two Trains Running, vibrant performances fill a commonplace diner with seven memorable characters. The play is a choral portrait of an African American neighborhood in the '60s, a harmony of voices working out their complaints — and laughing as they engage in that never-ending search for what might be right in the world even when so much is wrong.
Set in 1969, as urban renewal is marching through Pittsburgh's Hill District, the play takes place in the diner but describes the neighborhood. Memphis, owner of the restaurant and building, has to negotiate a deal with the city, which plans to raze the area. Down the street is the funeral parlor whose owner, West, has been buying up property for years and is still hoping to make a deal with Memphis before the city does, so West can leverage the larger chunk into more money.
Memphis has watched the neighborhood decay. He used to do great business but now serves only a few diehards and those with no better place to go. But these regulars have a strong sense of community, and Memphis' café is a vital gathering place. Wolf runs his numbers game using the diner's phone, creating a risk Memphis doesn't want to take with the law. It's a daily dispute, and Wolf goes right on answering the phone. Holloway stops in to read the paper over a cup of coffee. Risa, the cook and waitress, makes sure the mentally challenged Hambone has a bowl of beans each day.
Fresh from prison, the stranger Sterling drops in for a meal, bursting with energy. He sticks around for the company and the chance to flirt with Risa. His search for a job seems slapdash to Memphis but stretches Sterling to his limit.
Two Trains Running takes place the year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and four years after the death of Malcolm X. The Black Power movement is carrying the push for civil rights forward. Inside the declining diner, politics aren't directly spoken. The subtle differences between the older characters' complacence and the tense expectations of the younger ones percolate through the anecdotes they tell.
Memphis believes that hard work will get you a business; for Sterling, hard work is impossible when no one will give him a chance. For Wolf, running numbers for a white family that routinely cheats the winners is simple practicality. And for West, financial success is the only thing that compensates for the loss of his wife.
Each character craves something just out of reach. Hambone won't give up hoping, demanding or wailing that he receive the ham promised him for painting the butcher's fence. Almost everyone gives Wolf a daily dollar to play the numbers and looks to spiritual figures for guidance, hoping an outside force can help them. Love and death trickle through the characters' stories, almost hidden in the details.
Director Reginald L. Douglas gives full weight to the comedy Wilson embedded in the play. The production bubbles with laughter as the characters steer through their troubles with humor. But Douglas is equally adept at showing sparks of romance and building somber moments, and he has helped this ensemble work beautifully together.
Cary Hite gives Wolf a cool ease. But even leaning back in a chair with his hip-length leather jacket hanging open, he shows the pressure Wolf feels as his eyes scan the room beneath the cap slouched over his eyes.
As Hambone, Beethovan Oden carves out a character by filling his starkly limited lines with emotion and drive. Hambone's life is oddly inspiring to everyone, who find joy in his ceaseless hope.
Guiesseppe Jones, as Holloway, is as vivid when listening as he is speaking. Holloway doles out philosophical musings that the other characters generally ignore, but his role is not so much to persuade as to observe. Jones is simply superb as he responds without words, keeping the character always open to the world.
Raphael Peacock, as Memphis, eases into long bouts of storytelling with pleasure that can infect the audience. He brings out all the character's humor but misses the chance to capture Memphis' ache to know that life has proved him right.
Eboni Flowers, as Risa, finds a playful side to a character who also carries a dark reserve of anger. With an expressive face, she hides behind her coffee cup taking everything in, looking for a reason to drop her guard. Lawrence Evans, as West, shows dignity and drive, keen to believe he deserves all he has.
As Sterling, Bernard Gilbert jangles with impulsiveness from his first entrance. Gilbert keeps him alternating between hot-blooded energy and slinky calm, pouring himself on a stool at the counter then springing up as if he needs a big drink of danger.
Scenic designer Alexander Woodward has created a richly detailed diner with booths tucked into window bays, a lunch counter and a cheerful strip of light-blue paint defining the room's upper moldings. With working period lights and a vintage jukebox, the space has an authentic, well-worn feel. The audience is seated so close that they're nearly inside the diner, part of the neighborhood.
The definition of community might be people who argue but never stay angry. That's what Wilson has created in colloquial but intensely crafted language, and it's what this impressive production now offers audiences.