Wednesday, March 25, 2015

August Wilson's 'Two Trains Running' Offers More Slow-Track Enlightenment than Fast-Track Excitement -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Two Trains Running
a play by August Wilson
directed by Chuck Smith
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 19

Although Two Trains Running is just the third August Wilson play I've seen, I'm quite appreciative of the late writer's accomplishment in creating a 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience across each decade of the 20th century.

In time, I would hope to see the entire series, although each play supposedly stands on its own and Wilson did not write them in chronological order.

Certainly, by taking me inside a somewhat sleepy diner in Pittsburgh's Hill District, circa 1969, Wilson--via director Chuck Smith, a fine ensemble cast at the Goodman Theatre and a wonderfully realistic set design by Linda Buchanan--added to my cultural and historical perspectives while artfully framing the civil rights era through sly undercurrents rather than strident overtones.

As with the other two Wilson plays I've seen--Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, on Broadway, and Radio Golf at the Goodman--Two Trains Running features a fine assemblage of characters.

These include the restaurant's proud, always dapper owner Memphis (played by Terry Bellamy), a waitress named Risa (Nambi E. Kelley), regular customers Holloway (Alfred Wilson) and Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.), a numbers runner named Wolf (Anthony Irons), wealthy funeral home owner West (A.C. Smith) and Sterling (Chester Gregory), who is the most vocal civil rights advocate and a proponent of the late Malcolm X.

I liked the way the numerous characters interacted, and riffed on each other, and offered observations regarding life, death and numerous other matters.

This 1992 play definitely showcases August Wilson's gift for writing dialogue and addressing universal topics on a personal level.

But while I found Two Trains Running worthwhile, I must admit to liking it more than loving it.

As I stated in my prior post, I accept that a play can be any length it needs to be, but at nearly 3 hours, this 2-act drama seemed to drag a bit. And while each of the characters, and performances, is appealing on both a micro and macro level, somehow the overarching meanings and consequences being communicated didn't connect with me all that forcefully.

Despite the nimbleness with which Wilson addresses the turbulent '60s--including civil rights progress, disgusting bigotry, riots, the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.--through the prism of everyday conversation over coffee, I left the theater entertained and enlightened, but not extremely wowed.

My regard for August Wilson, Chuck Smith, the Goodman Theatre and all involved is such that not only wouldn't I dissuade anyone from seeing Two Trains Running, I really do recommend it on the basis that even to enjoy it on the @@@@ (out of 5) level that I did would make for a rewarding theatrical experience.

And if you like it more than I did, that's even better. 

It was also heartening to see a much more diverse audience than usual at the Goodman, and I expect members of the African-American community may more holistically identify with the situations and subtexts Wilson addresses.

Though I don't think I'll be able to take advantage of the staged readings the Goodman is presenting of Wilson's nine other plays as part of its August Wilson Celebration, I really would like to see Fences, Jitney, Gem of the Ocean, Seven Guitars and the rest of the writer's oeuvre.

But while it made for satisfying Sunday night entertainment--and than plenty of it--Two Trains Running didn't quite take me where I was hoping it might.

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