August Wilson's 'Two Trains Running' triumphs at Goodman Theatre

 
 
Posted3/20/2015 6:00 AM
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  • Alfred H. Wilson, left, Ernest Perry Jr., Chester Gregory, Nambi E. Kelley and Anthony Irons are among the last remaining residents in a crumbling Pittsburgh neighborhood in August Wilson's "Two Trains Running," in a revival at Goodman Theatre.

    Alfred H. Wilson, left, Ernest Perry Jr., Chester Gregory, Nambi E. Kelley and Anthony Irons are among the last remaining residents in a crumbling Pittsburgh neighborhood in August Wilson's "Two Trains Running," in a revival at Goodman Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Struggling parolee Sterling (Chester Gregory), left, stands off against numbers runner Wolf (Anthony Irons) in director Chuck Smith's terrific revival of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running."

    Struggling parolee Sterling (Chester Gregory), left, stands off against numbers runner Wolf (Anthony Irons) in director Chuck Smith's terrific revival of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Waitress Risa (Nambi E. Kelley), right, looks after the mentally challenged Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.) in Goodman Theatre's revival of "Two Trains Running."

    Waitress Risa (Nambi E. Kelley), right, looks after the mentally challenged Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.) in Goodman Theatre's revival of "Two Trains Running." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

  • Linda Buchanan's urban diner set for August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" is one of many reasons to see Goodman Theatre's revival.

    Linda Buchanan's urban diner set for August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" is one of many reasons to see Goodman Theatre's revival. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Reviewing Goodman Theatre's revival of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" posed a challenge.

Much of it had to do with finding superlatives that adequately described director Chuck Smith's exceptional production.

Funny, warmhearted and superbly acted, "Two Trains Running" is the centerpiece of a citywide celebration of the late playwright curated by the Goodman -- the only theater that has produced all 10 plays in Wilson's 20th Century Cycle chronicling the African-American experience in each decade of the last century.

There is much to admire about Wilson's candid snapshot of life in Pittsburgh's Hill District during the late 1960s, including its vivid dialogue, distinctive characters, wry humor and relevance.

With its depiction of racism, injustice and violence, the story resonates so powerfully it feels like "Two Trains Running" (which premiered in 1990) could have been written yesterday.

The action unfolds in 1969, in Memphis Lee's inner-city diner. Impressively conjured and impeccably detailed by set designer Linda Buchanan, it's among the last remaining oases in Pittsburgh's once-vibrant, now-crumbling Hill District, an African-American neighborhood that city officials plan to bulldoze in the name of urban renewal.

Outside, next to a pile of rubble, vacant buildings loom. But inside, the restaurant is tidy. The windows are clear, the curtains are clean and the red vinyl booths are intact. The menu is sparse, but the few regulars who remain don't seem to mind. They don't really come for the food: They come for the community, for as long as that community lasts.

Presiding over the diner is owner Memphis Lee, played by Terry Bellamy, whose powerful portrayal of a man transformed by tragedy is a cornerstone of Smith's production. The blustering Jackson, Mississippi, transplant knows city officials intend to raze his building, but he refuses to budge until they meet his price.

He's not the only one determined to get his due. The intellectually disabled Hambone also wants what's owed him, though his expectations are far more modest.

Played by the remarkable Ernest Perry Jr., who conveys more feeling in a few words than some actors do in entire monologues, Hambone simply wants the ham Lutz, a meat market owner, promised him nearly 10 years earlier in exchange for Hambone painting the man's fence. Instead, Lutz paid Hambone with a chicken. Every day since, Hambone has demanded from Lutz his rightful compensation.

Sterling (the endearing, dynamic Chester Gregory), a kindhearted parolee, wants a job but has a hard time finding one. Wolf (the lean, lithe Anthony Irons in a nicely economical performance) runs numbers for the local mob boss. He has his eye on the defiantly self-contained Risa (the deliberate, wonderfully elusive Nambi E. Kelley), the diner's only waitress whose emotional pain goes much deeper than the cuts she makes on her legs to deter lecherous men.

Funeral director West (a nicely impassive A.C. Smith), one of the wealthiest men in the neighborhood, wants to increase his property holdings by buying Memphis out. Last, but not least, there's the diner's resident sage Holloway (the perceptive Alfred H. Wilson), a pragmatic philosopher who encourages the others to "get right with themselves" with a visit to Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old mystic who helps Hill District residents cleanse their souls.

Over the course of several days, they talk and plot, speculate and reminisce, tease and philosophize on everything from Black Power to gentrification, income disparity to love.

Wilson is not stingy. Just about every character gets a choice monologue -- or in the case of Perry's Hambone, a memorable phrase, mellifluously expressed -- which the actors eloquently deliver. Bellamy in particular, shaking with rage and determination, delivers a powerful speech in which Memphis recalls the white men who drove him from his Jackson home and how he -- having learned the rules of survival -- intends to reclaim his land. Wilson's Holloway expresses himself more matter-of-factly, but his pronouncements on money, guns and white fear are spot-on and as current as today's headlines.

Chuck Smith's meticulous, detailed direction is an ideal balance of sentiment, humor and social conscience. Bravo to him and kudos to Goodman's cast and creative team.

And a deep bow and tip of the porkpie hat to August Wilson, whose "Two Trains Running" shows us where we were, where we are and how far we have to go.

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