Monday, April 30, 2018

"Two Trains Running" at Arena Stage

Friday night I saw August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" at Arena Stage.  It is part of Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle, it premiered in the 1990's but takes place in 1969.  It looks at seven characters and takes place entirely in a diner in what had been a thriving black neighborhood, and now the city is buying up land for urban renewal.  The characters are the diner and building owner, Memphis, his apparently sole staff member Risa, retired house painter Holloway, thriving funeral parlor owner West, Hambone, and recently released from penitentiary but full of big plans Sterling.  
I can be hard to know how to contextualize a play written in the 1990's and set in the 1960's.  It felt (and looked) of it's time.  The language and concerns seemed of the 1960's.  The characters are interesting and each unique as they try to figure out what's next.  Holloway is mostly retired from house painting and seems to be in the diner all day.  (And kudos' to the costume designer, his shoes all had paint splatters, as did some of his pants.)  Memphis is pleased with himself for owning his building, even if clientele in the diner has sadly declined, because if the city is going to pay him, then all good.  West is doing well with the funeral business, but also wants to buy Memphis' building.  He promises he'll pay more than the city.  Hambone speaks mostly in the repetitive phrase, "I want my ham," based on a long running disagreement with a local business owner who had promised him a ham for a good paint job and then never gave him the ham. Wolf runs numbers, using the diner as one spot people know to come find him to place their bets. Sterling has big plans, seemingly shifting a little each day.  But Holloway is getting a different story from Sterling's former employers.  Rissa works hard and well, she speaks little.  She has scarred legs, possibly done as an attempt to scare off a portion of suitors.  Having recently watched the live performance of "Jesus Christ Superstar" I was a little reminded of Mary Magdalene, in that her purpose is mostly to support others.  Here quite a few of them men express interest - current or past - in Risa's form.  Risa is constantly bringing people coffee, pie, and other food.  Or cleaning up after them.  And certainly, as a server in the diner, that is her job.  But we don't really get the same sense of what Risa wants out of life. Risa is wonderfully kind to Hambone, and very patient with everyone else, even West who constantly asks her for sugar he doesn't use.  
The production was staged in the round and worked well.  In the scene transitions one or occasionally two characters were spotlit while they performed some repetitive motion, to give the audience something to look at as the stage hands reset things, and other characters shifted into new positions.  The ones where the character did something percussive to the beat of the transition music to my eye worked better than some of the more ethereal dance move looking ones.  But that is a matter of taste.  
Overall it was a great performance.