Review: “Two Trains Running” at Marin Theatre Company (*****)

From L to R: Sam Jackson (as Risa) and Eddie Ewell (as Sterling) share a delightful chemistry in Marin Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”

By Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

With the perspective of the 21st century, it is abundantly clear that August Wilson is one of the most significant playwrights of the English theatre, and not just the 20th century. His accomplishment is in a league with the likes of Shakespeare, Shaw, Williams, and Miller, and has echoes of Sophocles and Aeschylus. Am I over doing it here? More likely, I’m actually damning with faint praise.

That this Black playwright, in America, in the final years of the 20th century, created his “Century Cycle” focusing, exclusively, on Black experience — and accomplished this in the face of a theatre establishment that couldn’t care less — is nothing short of a miracle.

One way to appreciate the excellence of Wilson’s writing is to consider, the multiple “fools” in his work, including Hedley Sr. in “Seven Guitars,” Gabriel in “Fences,” and “Hambone,” in “Two Trains Running.” No sensitive reader can fail to recognize that these haunting characters are matched only by the type of the Shakespearean Fool with which the Elizabethan master peppered his plays.

Shakespeare is undoubtedly the most admired and produced English playwright in history. “Shakespeare Festivals” consume theatrical summers in cities all over the world, especially in the U.S. Almost every town in America it seems, has a Shakespeare performance at least once a year. And entire communities (like Ashland, Colorado) revolve around Shakespeare festivals for tourism. There is no other playwright for whom this is true.

Mark my words: this will be true for August Wilson. It is inevitable. It will happen within current lifetimes.

For all that, and in spite of many awards, Wilson’s plays have not been as widely produced as they deserve. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Goodman Theatre in Chicago was the first to produce the entire cycle of 10 plays. For this review, I tried to ascertain what other professional companies have done the same, but I was unable to easily gather that information. This is an indication that the importance of this work has not been properly recognized.

And so it is that we in the Bay area are incredibly fortunate that one of our leading regional houses, Marin Theatre Company, has chosen to take on the task. The current production of “Two Trains Running” is their fourth Wilson play, having previously given us outstanding renditions of “Seven Guitars,” “Fences” and “Gem of the Ocean.

The current production continues this high standard of excellence. There was a moment on opening night, about fifteen minutes in, when this amazing ensemble of actors, riding wave after wave of audience laughter, seemed to realize that they were in actor heaven, and indeed they were. The emotional intensity, honesty, and integrity of this production is of the highest order. It is difficult to imagine a more successful rendering.

As small business man, Memphis, Lamont Thompson is superb. Memphis is planning to sell his building to the City, to avoid having it taken by eminent domain, but he is well aware that as a Black man, he is unlikely to get what he considers a fair price. On this he broods. The restaurant’s waitress, Risa, is played to the hilt by Sam Jackson. Rita is a beautiful woman who took a razor blade to her legs to become less beautiful – so that men would be forced to consider her entire being and not just her looks. She is smart, and she is angry. The characters who hang out at Memphis’s restaurant include Wolf, a go-getting numbers racketeer played with smarts and enthusiasm by Kenny Scott, and Holloway, an older man with a spiritual perspective, played with gentility by Michael J. Ashbury. Edie Ewell lights up the stage as the newcomer of the group: the brash young Sterling, recently released from prison, brimming with hope and enthusiasm, yet finding it difficult to land a job.

The characters’ discussion revolves around the changes taking place in the community, the death of a local preacher, the influence of Malcolm X, the rise of the Black Power movement, the effort of the white power structure to buy up property in the community, and the difficulties of dealing with white people. Memphis, in particular, is determined to win his contest with the white establishment by getting a fair price should he sell his restaurant to the white developers.

The discussion is wide ranging, and eventually includes another local character, Hambone, an apparently damaged character, perhaps homeless, whose only utterance is “I want my ham,” a mysterious phrase which acquires layers of meaning as the play progresses. Hambone is a sort of cousin to Shakespeare’s fools, and Michael Wayne Rice makes the most of the part. The most successful business man in the neighborhood, undertaker West, eventually makes an appearance, as undertakers must, and adds to the general hubbub.

“Two Trains Running” is a bubbling stew of a play, with multiple plots and themes and subtleties all mixed up in one big hot mess. There is no point in trying to summarize the story; it has to be experienced.

I will say that, at its heart, it turns out to be a love story, very personal, which ultimately seems to be more important than all the historical arguments and cantankerous discussion about how to live and thrive in difficult circumstances.

This spectacular production is helmed with consummate skill by director Dawn Monique Williams, ably supported by an excellent team of designers.

One other noteworthy point: the dialect of the actors has the unmistakable ring of fidelity to the way folks talk. Special callout to excellent work by dialect coach Cherie Corrine Rice.

“Two Trains Running” plays at Marin Theatre Company through December 18, 2022. For further information click here.

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Rating: *****

(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Two Trains Running” by August Wilson. Produced by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Dawn Monique Williams. Scenic Designer: Stephen C. Jones. Costume Designer: Alice Ruiz. Lighting Designer: Kurt Landisman. Sound Designer/Composer Gregory Robinson. Publications Dramaturg: Khalid Y. Long. Dialect Coach: Cherie Corrine Rice. Intimacy Coach Jeunée Simon. Props Designer: Liam Rudisill.

Cast:

Memphis: Lamont Thompson. Wolf: Kenny Scott. Risa: Sam Jackson. Holloway: Michael J. Asberry. Sterling: Edie Ewell. Hambone: Michael Wayne Rice. West: Khary L. Moye.

 

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