Also see Kevin's review of Morning's at Seven
Pundits are already wondering what August Wilson will do, now that he is wrapping up his chronicle of the 20th century (Gem of the Ocean is attempting to move to Broadway while Radio Golf is waiting to make a hole in one). We can ponder that situation, or we can bask in the glory of previous Wilson gems such as Two Trains Running, the seventh play in his 20th century cycle, now playing at the M Ensemble’s Actors Studio.
The M is no stranger to Wilson's works, coming off of a critically acclaimed revival of The Piano Lesson last season. Transferring from that production to Two Trains Running are Keith C. Wade, Chat Atkins, and Lela Elam. The trio has an understanding of Wilson’s fire, so it is only right that resident director John Pryor has chosen to use them again.
The year is 1969 and the play opens in a restaurant across the street from a funeral home and meat market. Memphis (Wade) runs the diner alongside his waitress, the withdrawn Risa (played with quiet reserve by Elam). Usual customers include numbers runner Wolf (Atkins), blustery Holloway (a droll Nate Benson), pokerfaced undertaker West (Roy G. Phillips), and a pre-Rain Man named Hambone (played with indelible execution by Prince Bowie). The characters wear their stories on their sleeves.
Memphis is the staunch proprietor in a battle with the city of Pittsburgh, who wants to tear down his property. Risa is done with men, so she scars her legs to keep them away. Wolf is the hustler who uses Memphis’ establishment as one of his headquarters to take numbers (much to Memphis’ irritation). Hambone holds a grudge against a former employer for not giving him a reward for good work. And all Holloway can say is for everyone to see 300-year-old Aunt Ester (she is not seen here, but appears in Gem of the Ocean); she can take care of all quandaries. The antagonist comes in the form of a former convict named Sterling (a confident Meshaun Arnold). Sterling is young, loud and obnoxious - all signs of trouble. But Sterling brings in an element of surprise that livens up the diner, making Two Trains Running interesting to watch.
August Wilson gives us his take on his hometown of Pittsburgh in all its guts and glory. Two Trains Running is definitely an ensemble play because of the relationships between characters: Memphis’ paternal instincts with Risa and Risa’s maternal instincts toward Hambone. Even though there is no conflict within the group, the real antagonist is the world outside of the diner. From the city trying to buy off Memphis, to Sterling’s troubles as a free man, the play also deals with topics such as recession and death. One standout is the connection between Sterling and Risa. Sterling breaks down Risa’s resolve methodically, even though he doesn’t know he’s doing it.
The only disadvantage here is that August Wilson doesn’t write plays, he writes epics. Two Trains Running clocks in at two hours and forty-five minutes, and takes so much time to end. Though the play doesn’t wrap up in a neat little package, some audience members will be tapping their toes waiting for a conclusion, and that’s not how a play should be remembered. Thanks to the M, this production keeps the momentum going, with the cooperation of the players within.
Keith Wade is commanding as Memphis. Having some of the longest monologues in this play, Wade keeps things interesting through his interpretations. He may look youngish as an old time proprietor, but he gives an honest portrayal of a man who has seen and done it all. Lela Elam never wanes from her focus as Risa, a resigned young woman who has been beaten down by men who want only one thing from her. Her last resort is self-mutilation. Elam downplays that fact by giving a true and honest performance.
Nate Benson makes the most out of secondary character Holloway. Holloway is a reminder of Cedric the Entertainer in the film Barbershop. Holloway’s soapbox is always full and Benson shows that to near perfection. Chat Atkins is slick as Wolf, trying to be the best numbers man in the district. The most difficult role is one that has a repetition that goes beyond annoying to just downright silly - Hambone keeps saying, “He gonna give me my ham.” Prince Bowie has the right sense to mix comedy and pathos in what Hambone is saying and for that, we thank him!
However, the scene stealer is Meshaun Arnold as Sterling, the real hustler in this cast. Arnold controls the room whenever Sterling is in the diner, mixing hilarity and drama in his movements. He shows Sterling as an everyman who, though down on his luck, has a plan. Arnold’s scenes with Elam prove that chemistry is not dead as he tries to romance her at every turn.
E. Marcus Smith’s diner set will make you hungry for roast beef and collard greens. The design is immaculately conceived and will take you back to a time when everything was everything and the world is contained in one intimate space.
There is no doubt that August Wilson will go down in history as a great American playwright. His portrayals of Black America (epics notwithstanding) are just as fierce as anything we have seen on stage. If he ever does a chronicle on the 21st century, we hope he lightens up on his play running time. If not, at least we have productions like Two Trains Running by companies like the M Ensemble to bask in Wilson’s greatness. Memphis’ diner will be open through December 19th at Actors Studio, 12320 W. Dixie Highway, in North Miami. For more information, please call (305) 895-8955 or www.themensemble.com.
M ENSEMBLE COMPANY - Two Trains Running
Cast: Keith C. Wade, Chat Atkins, Lela Elam, Nate Benson,
Set Design: E. Marcus Smith
Directed by John Pryor
See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.
-- Kevin Johnson