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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Two Trains Running
Marin Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent review of Wuthering Heights

Sam Jackson and Eddie Ewell
Photo by Kevin Berne/Marin Theatre Company
Communities come in many forms: neighborhoods, churches, clubs, families, interest groups, parties ... Or, in the case of August Wilson's Two Trains Running, which opened this week in a stellar production at Marin Theatre Company, the community in question revolves around a diner in Pittsburgh's predominantly black Hill District in 1969. Memphis (Lamont Thompson) is the diner's owner, but the neighborhood is in decline and the city wants to demolish the entire block to make way for new development. With his business waning, Memphis tends to throw his weight around, being especially curt with his sole employee, Risa (Sam Jackson), an exceptionally attractive woman who purposely scarred her legs as a youth in an attempt to deflect the attention the men of the neighborhood paid her.

Despite this, Sterling (Eddie Ewell), recently released from the penitentiary, is besotted with Risa and, ignoring her disinterest in him, expresses a desire to marry her once he wins the local numbers game run by Wolf (Kenny Scott), another regular at the diner. Interestingly, Wilson chooses to call Sterling's place of incarceration a "penitentiary"–not a prison, not a jail, but a penitentiary, a word with a root meaning of "repentance." Apt, for Sterling seems truly to want to atone in some way. He doesn't express remorse for his crime (a bank robbery), but seems honest in most every other respect and is diligently seeking employment. Ewell plays Sterling with an undeniable charm and a smile with an almost incandescent glow.

The other regulars at Memphis's diner include Holloway (Michael J. Asberry), the elder sage of the group; West (Khary L. Moye), the successful businessman who runs the local mortuary and owns many buildings in the neighborhood; and Hambone (Michael Wayne Rice), an intellectually challenged man who is obsessed with a past grievance.

The story (part of Wilson's ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle") takes place during a convulsive time in American history. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated, and the Black Power movement is in full swing. But not everyone at the diner is bought into the cause. Memphis, who moved to Pittsburgh from the deep South, has experienced racism at its worst, but his search for justice involves getting the city to pay him what he deems a fair price for the building that houses the diner. Risa isn't interested in rallies or protests either, and Holloway gets his advice from the mysterious Aunt Ester, an allegedly 322-year old mystic, whose techniques for changing one's luck often involve throwing $20 bills into the Monongahela River.

Over the course of nearly three hours, this rather ad hoc community will engage in the most human of activities: eating, arguing, falling in love, seeking for justice, and generally striving to make a better place for themselves in a world that seems to throw up roadblocks to thwart their desires. Those with power and money seek more, and those without attempt to claw their way up the ladder of success, even if they are starting at the bottom rung.

This is a stunning production on all levels. The set by Stephen C. Jones is an exquisite reproduction of an inner city diner, with its 1950s-era furnishings, a pay phone on the wall, and a (broken) jukebox in the corner by a hat rack. Through the windows we see a wall covered with posters supporting unions and decrying gentrification, reminding us at all times that this is an era of protest and upheaval. Lighting by Kurt Landisman perfectly complements the set, and the sound by Gregory Robinson is impeccable. (The ringing of the pay phone actually seems to come from the phone, and not from some centrally placed speaker.)

Director Dawn Monique Williams brings a sure hand to the proceedings. Every bit of movement seems natural and motivated by Wilson's text. The pacing is taut, and we are never left feeling we are anywhere but inside that diner with all its characters.

And what characters! Especially in the hands of this incredibly talented cast, who bring out the humanity and desires of every single one of Wilson's brilliantly diverse cast. Each actor is wonderful in their own way, making it nearly impossible to single out any single performance. That said, Michael Wayne Rice is so utterly charming and gentle as Hambone that you can almost feel the smiles growing across every face in the audience when he walks on stage. His lines consist almost entirely of "I'm gone get my ham!" But each time he delivers it, it feels somehow fresh and new. Thompson swaggers with the pride of ownership, yet reveals the stress his character feels even though he hides it from everyone else. Asberry's Holloway has a world-weary mien that is nothing but delightful. Director Williams has placed him at center stage in almost every scene, so it's almost as if the community revolves around him–and in a way, it does. Scott exhibits a hustler's manic energy as Wolf, Jackson makes us root for Risa at every turn, and Moye's portrayal of the rich and successful mortician/businessman West serves as a tutorial in relaxed confidence.

Two Trains Running is a moving, naturalistic portrait of a specific time and a specific place that resonates with humanity, and sings with the desire for love, justice, and the joys of community.

Two Trains Running runs through December 18, 2022, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-388-5208.