I remember wondering four years ago why August Wilson would spend the first half of Two Trains Runningthe drama he’s set in a black-owned and patronized Pittsburgh dinerassembling volatile materials, and the second half refusing to detonate an explosion. Studio Theater’s production suggests an answer of sorts by turning the evening into a giddy display of verbal fireworks.
By early in the play’s second act, Wilson has placed in close proximity an ex-con with a history of violence, a 5-gallon can of gasoline, and a loaded revolver. Also on the premises are the restaurant’s proprietor, who’s feuding with an urban-renewal-obsessed city hall; a neighbor-gouging funeral director who’s allegedly so miserly he re-uses caskets; and a waitress who has mutilated her legs with razors so men won’t ogle her. Outside are a crazed street person who keeps bellowing, “I want my ham,” at a Jewish grocer who wronged him a decade earlier, and an Italian gambling capo who has “cut” the day’s number, meaning that winnersthe violence-prone ex-con among themwill receive only half the normal return. Did I mention the Malcolm X rally? Clearly, the raw stuff of conflict is present.
Wilson hasn’t really made dramatic use of it, but Studio’s director, Thomas W. Jones II, whips up such a froth of activity that patrons may not notice much. Where Broadway’s version felt static, as if its diner was second cousin to the desolate one in Petrified Forest, Studio’s is warm, inviting, and teeming with life. Daniel Conway has designed its lunch counter with such attention to detail that you half-expect to be served fried chicken and coffee at intermission. And the performances are as natural and assured as Wilson’s dialogue. Lester Purry’s ex-con is an appealing smoothie around whom an aura of danger hovers. He has the evening’s most difficult role as an outsider who, for plot purposes, must remain a bit undefined and, to his credit, makes the character seem unknown rather than unknowable.
The others are all instantly familiar. Michael W. Howell’s deeply resonant voice lends authority to the diner proprietor’s proclamations about not being beaten by city hall. Kenneth W. Daugherty’s funeral director is amusingly oily, Rebecca Rice’s damaged waitress possesses just the right blend of fire and enigmatic longing, and Donald Griffin is all salt-o’-the-earthiness as a patron who won’t get involved.
As a flashy numbers-runner, Elliott Hill has been outfitted (in a neat bit of character assassination by costumer Reggie Ray) in a series of stridently gaudy suits with matching shoes, and is colorful enough to live up to them. And James Brown-Orleans is convincing enough as the wild-eyed street guy who so volubly wants his ham that he might simply have wandered in from 14th Street.
Collectively, their labors give an enormous amount of vitality to a story that isn’t really going anywhere. In the end, the gasoline ends up powering a Cadillac; the gun stays pocketed; the grocer and the capo are barely challenged, and the waitress falls for the ex-con. Still, the evening is warm enough that none of this seems at all disappointing or ordinary…not even that last uncharacteristic (for Wilson) romantic touch. You get the impression that after the waitress finds some slacks to cover the gashes on her calves, all will be well with the world.CP