Gordon Spencer review of Two Trains Running @ Pittsburgh Playwrights

In the nearly three hours of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” produced by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, you could feel that you’ve been transported to and immersed in the lives of people you didn’t know before but have come to know thoroughly. And you get mighty close to them; the theater space is small. It’s almost as if you’re in the same room, especially given the totally convincing set.

Wilson’s play most seems like a fascinating, compassionate and perceptive collective portrait of what could be unfamiliar kinds of lives rather than a deliberate drama with a serious plot. And, given how long you remain witnessing what the characters say and do, the more you are likely to get involved. Everything becomes completely real.

Credit director Mark Clayton Southers and an excellent seven member cast for telling it like it is, with truth and depth.

Being by August Wilson, it’s set in Pittsburgh. But the city is peripheral to what happens. It could be any city. Wilson has filled his colorful canvas with remarkable details, evoking complex and articulate characters, characters who often say something special about the good and bad sides of life in their no longer prosperous community. They talk about race, of course, and about white folks. But mostly they talk about what it means to live the way they do and where they do. Sometimes they say funny things. Sometimes they offer wisdom and insight. But mostly Wilson makes sure they reveal themselves.

The setting for “Two Trains Running” is a Hill District restaurant run by a man named Memphis. That’s a city he came from. Four men regularly hang out there. One is Wolf, a numbers runner who’s sometimes uses the place to collects bets. Another is West, a prosperous local funeral director. There is also Holloway, a somewhat wise older man. And there is mentally off-balanced Hambone, obsessed with an unjust broken promise. Add to them the young waitress Risa and a newly arrived young ex-convict Sterling.

The play primarily consists of interplay and interactions among them, although danger sometimes lurks in the background and hopes for the future motivate a few of them. Wilson makes sure get to know all of them well. Particularly you can come to admire Memphis for enduring dreadful changes of fortune and for his level-headed take on life. And I think you will feel compassion for crazy Hambone, as do the other people in the restaurant.

Anthony Chisholm appears as Memphis. He has major New York and TV credits and has been getting star billing and local press attention. But director Southers has found ways to make sure that all of his performers come across with just as much conviction and talent, resulting in a first-class ensemble. They have as much solidity and reality as the working pay-phone Southers assembled on his believable set.

Being there while it’s running can be a remarkable experience.

August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” continues through May 25th at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, downtown at 542 Penn Avenue, just across from Heinz Hall one flight upstairs. For tickets you need to go on-line to www.pghplaywrights.com

(Gordon Spencer on WRCT radio, Pittsburgh, Sunday May 18th, 2008 between 2 and 3pm on “The Best of Broadway.” )