Credit: Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre

The dramas in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, though set in specific decades throughout the 20th century, are not history plays, at least not in the Shakespearean sense. They are not weighed down with the recounting of specific events and focus instead on intimate moments in the lives of the characters. Wilson assumes that audiences know something about the African-American experience and news of the era, always putting emotional breakthroughs ahead of drawn-out explanations.

This method of storytelling gives Wilson’s plays a timeless quality. Director Juliette Carrillo understands this intrinsically, which is why her Arena Stage production of Wilson’s Two Trains Running, a play about urban renewal set in 1969 and first performed in 1990, feels eerily relevant in 2018. 

We meet the characters at a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the kind of place where you come for a cup of coffee and a bowl of beans and stick around for conversations about what is happening in the neighborhood and the world. Its proprietor, Memphis Lee, is facing off against the city, which wants to take his building through eminent domain and pay him less than he thinks the building is worth. His customers spend their days playing the numbers and consult with prophets and fortune tellers to solve their problems. They struggle to get by as they deal with unemployment, the problems facing returning citizens, and emotional trauma, and though they disagree about how the world should work and which civil rights leaders have the right ideas, it is clear that having their gatherings at the restaurant sustain them. The question of what will happen to them when the city demolishes the building and others like it hovers over the proceedings like a low fog.

Wilson, a Pittsburgh native, chronicles his city’s changes in his work, but the urban renewal issues that play out in Two Trains Running were not limited to the Steel City. In the late 1950s, huge swaths of Southwest D.C. were razed to make room for a highway and new apartment buildings mere blocks from where Arena Stage currently sits. In this setting, with this knowledge, Wilson’s words resonate deeply.

The nuanced performances of the cast give the play even more emotional heft. As Memphis, Eugene Lee balances the man’s stubbornness and his drive to get what he is owed. That stubborn streak isolates him from his customers at times—he does not want to gamble or listen to them debate whether a recently deceased religious leader was truly a prophet—but Lee, with his measured vocal cadence and penetrating stare, makes sure that the audience understands why Memphis would feel this way. Nicole Lewis’ portrayal of Risa, the restaurant’s lone waitress who struggles to find some meaning in her life, feels familiar. Her battles with her own unhappiness and her relationships with the customers are as relatable to contemporary audiences as they would have been 50 years ago.  

In Arena’s round Fichandler Stage, the audience gets drawn into the characters’ conversations. Scenic designer Misha Kachman has created a hyper-realistic set, down to the broken jukebox that Risa just wants to dance to. The restaurant looks worn out, as though it already knows its fate, but the lighting still makes the space feel warm. This impromptu community center will prevail, even if the physical location changes.

When Viola Davis accepted her Academy Award for Fences, the film adaptation of another Wilson play, she praised the playwright who “exhumed and exalted ordinary people.” What makes Wilson’s characters so memorable is their ordinariness. They are regular people doing regular jobs and figuring out how to get by. As we watch their lives play out over the course of three hours, in a neighborhood not unlike the one brought to life on stage, we learn from them and wind up the better for it.

At Arena Stage to May 6. 1101 6th St. SW. $56–$111. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.