BWW Review: TWO TRAINS RUNNING at Arena Stage is Worthy of Another Look
Though there has been no shortage of productions of August Wilson's plays in the DC area over the last decade starting with Kennedy Center's staged reading of all ten of his plays in 2008, those looking for yet another look at his work might consider taking a trip to Arena Stage. Frequent theatergoers may have seen Two Trains Running at Round House Theatre in 2014, but this production (presented in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre) is worthy of a second look. Director Juliette Carrillo, with some help from the wonderfully talented set designer Misha Kachman, makes excellent use of the unique Fichlander space to give the audience an intimate, detailed, and realistic look at a Pittsburgh diner in 1969 and the people that work or visit there on a regular basis.
Like most of Wilson's plays, this one is more or less a study of the human condition. Carrillo and her mostly strong cast prove more than capable of navigating the twists and turns of human interaction from the mundane to the serious and profound. Over the course of three hours, we get to know the diner's owner, Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee), his waitress Risa (Nicole Lewis), and the colorful cast of characters - all of whom represent the city's black underclass - that make themselves comfortable at the diner's well-worn tables and booths. We learn about their personal struggles, which are used as a platform to explore larger issues such as racial and socioeconomic inequality in an urban setting.
While Wilson's script lacks sufficient focus (not helped by some less than ideal pacing in Act II), the actors are strong enough to center the audience's attention on the most important aspects. Eugene Lee is a valuable asset throughout thanks to his down-to-earth presence and natural acting style, but it is his powerfully delivered monologue about what drove Memphis Lee to Pittsburgh from the South that brings the play to another level.
Other exceptionally strong performances come from Nicole Lewis, Carlton Byrd as the charming, but wild Sterling who was recently released from prison, and Frank Riley III as the persistent homeless man Hambone. Lewis expertly showcases her comedy chops when interacting with the equally humorous Carlton Byrd as Sterling. Byrd fully embraces his character's larger than life personality, which is also expressed in Ivania Stack's outlandish costume design. Both Lewis and Byrd prove more than just comedic actors though as their characters show kindness to Hambone and respond to a tragedy befalling him. Frank Riley III ensures you feel sorry for Hambone rather than get annoyed by him, which makes the ending of the play so much more powerful.
Reginald André Jackson (Wolf), David Emerson Toney (Holloway), and William Hall Jr. (West) round out the cast. Of these three, William Hall Jr. was the weak link on opening night. His line delivery lacked emotion and at times he was inaudible. Nonetheless, the rest of the production is so strong that it's possible to overlook this performance.
Running Time: 3 hours, including one intermission.
TWO TRAINS RUNNING plays at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6 Street, SW in Washington, DC - through April 29, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.
Photo: (L to R) Nicole Lewis (Risa), Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee), Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling); by C. Stanley Photography.