August Wilson stands among the greatest of American playwrights in easy company with O’Neill, Williams, and Miller. Whenever I get a notice of an August Wilson play I haven’t seen yet, I make every effort to go. My goal is to see every one of his magnum opus, The Pittsburgh or Century Cycle. His Two Trains Running is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in1969 (the seventh decade of the cycle), a time of social upheaval—war, protests, turmoil, and assassinations. The action takes place in a diner slated for demolition that is owned by a burley, fretful man known as Memphis (Montae Russell). He harries his one employee, Risa (stoic, self-contained Nija Okoro), barking out orders to do this or that, but Risa moves at her own pace. Old Holloway (Adolphus Ward) takes the long view of things. He knows a lot and has seen a lot and commands the unfolding situations with words of reason.
Wolf (played by Jon Chaffin at the performance I attended) runs a numbers racket using the diner’s pay phone, which pisses Memphis off no end. A newly released felon named Sterling (Dorian Missick) insinuates himself into the scene at the diner with good-natured, brittle bravado and soon takes notice of Risa, who evades him with stoic, mask-like coolness.
Hambone (Ellis E. Williams), a fireplug of a man, enters from time to time with a wild-eyed expression barking out, “He gonna gimme my ham!” over and over again. He seems mentally damaged and is resentful that a man he worked for promised to give him a ham if he was satisfied with the work, otherwise he was going to give him a chicken. He did not get his ham and has been stuck in that wrong for nine-and-a-half years. Hambone annoys the boss, but Risa gentles him with exquisite patience.
And finally there is big, wealthy, self satisfied West (Alex Morris), the neighborhood undertaker, owner of seven Cadillacs, who offers to buy the diner at a price that irks the volatile Memphis. West has a genuinely pleasant demeanor and gets on with people and brushes aside the diner-owner’s grumpiness with ease.
Under the flawless direction of Michele Shay, this ensemble of superb actors is sensational, infusing the action with energy and monumental heart, bringing August Wilson’s words, with its built-in rhythms and emotions, to extraordinary life.
Superlatives must go to the production team of scenic designer John Iacovelli, lighting designer Brian Gale, sound designer Jeff Gardner, costume designer Mylette Nora, and makeup, wigs, hair designer Sheila Dorn. A special shout out goes to the props team of Bruce Dickinson and Ina Shumaker who infuse Memphis’ diner with detailed life. The jukebox and the cigarette machine bring back memories.
Theatregoers, waste no time! Hie thee hence to the Matrix Theatre and see this show! August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, produced by Sophina Brown continues through March 3 as a guest production at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles.