Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Two Trains Running
But, till it's almost over, you'll never be really sure which horrible smash-up will finally occur. That's what keeps us on the edge of our seats in this 20th season opener at Clayton Community Theatre, at the Washington University South Campus. Nada Vaughn directs, and the action is wonderfully natural, with fascinating characters, each one unique and different. Once you realize it is the other side of city living, with its own cruel justice and stunning mercy, it becomes a door to an entirely new world, at least for a South St. Louisan.
We learn a lot about surviving in hard times with a good attitude, thanks to Archie Coleman as Memphis Lee, the owner of a diner in a dying part of Pittsburgh, and from all the men who come in, just to pass the time of day. The fact that the diner is right across the street from a black-owned mortuary also adds a big dash of philosophy to the dialog, where each new funeral is measured against the others, and quiet judgment is rendered, each time, on an entire life: based on the mourners' crowd size and what sort of "grave goods" go into the casket, along with the body.
Don McClendon is Holloway, one of the regulars, affable in a stammering way, his nose buried in one of the free magazines by the door. He helps lead the way to the "barbershop" mentality of the play, as other denizens come and go. Jazmine K. Wade is the resilient young waitress, calmly softening the occasionally cantankerous tone in a very male establishment. And Jeremy Thomas adds a bold comic touch as Hambone, whose presence also reveals the fragility of inner-city life. By comparison, Memphis Lee has a more complex problem in City Hall, which plays out excitingly in the end.
As West, Jaz Tucker has a fantastic, hard smile as the very successful owner of the neighborhood mortuary, and his West seems equally adept at fending off both criticisms and job requests. His pained, padding style of walking fits nicely into the other characters' gossip about West's cheapness, in wearing a pair of shoes for 30 years, despite owning seven Cadillacs. Director Vaughn gives each character his (or her) own sense of style and purpose and fitting in, and each has their own confident sense of pride and position.
Erick Lindsey and Minware Tutu are both young and brash and winning as Sterling and Wolf (respectively) and, though only the audience can know it, both are headed toward a murderous confrontation over the "numbers" racket in their own Hill District neighborhood. As Sterling, Mr. Lindsey plays a just-released convict, cheerful and optimistic, but looking for workand love. As the neighborhood's exceedingly elegant gangster, Wolf, Mr. Tutu is just as smooth taking bets as he is loaning out a handgun. It's never dwelt upon, but it's sad to note the two richest characters in this part of town are deeply involved in gambling or death.
The play was both a Pulitzer finalist and a Tony Award Best Play nominee in 1992. And there is an unexpectedly gripping quality about it, as seemingly tenuous storylines are gradually brought to a boil, like the short ribs cooking in the diner's kitchen. Props mistress Susan Moore has outfitted Andrew Cary's lovely set with a grandiose jukebox but, for most of the show, it looks strangely fake, till somethingwell, several thingsthat are purely magical happen near the end. The time is 1969, and the contemporary music throughout is beautiful, though only a year's passed since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It's really a tonic, to see characters with long-standing grievances work them out thoughtfully and carefully, with wisdom and philosophy. Their trials do not diminish them, but rather, their hard-won insight makes them whole.
Through October 22, 2017, at the Washington University South Campus, 6501 Clayton Road (across from the Esquire theater, and about a block east). For more information go to www.placeseveryone.org.