In 1992 the seventh of August Wilson's Century Cycle of plays, Two Trains Running, was produced on Broadway in New York for 160 performances. It won a young Laurence Fishburne in the role of Sterling - the romantic protaganist - a Tony Award for best supporting actor. The play also featured Roscoe Lee Browne as Sterling, a philosophical gentleman who fervently believes in the prophecies of a 330 year old woman who lives down the street. These two roles are played in the Weston Playhouse production by Bernard Gilbert and Guiseppe Jones. Both men are constant customers in Memphis' diner, doomed to be taken through eminent domain and demolished during Pittsburgh's urban redevelopment.
Wilson's play, set in 1969 in the Hill District of that city, brings to light the political movement of the time, the Black Power Movement and the words of Malcolm X which are heard throughout the play. Wilson here is a documenter of the times rather than an advocate of a political effort and with his seven characters, a full cross-section of the 1960's neighborhood, he brings that era to vivid life. Director Reginald L. Douglas has made very good use of the visual aspects of the late '60s in keeping the play vibrantly alive and pertinent.
Risa is typically under-appreciated by her boss, Memphis, and at the same time is considered a possible sexual conquest by most of her customers. Wilson's portrait here is of the typical working woman of the time, coy, professional, flirtatious and cautious. Eboni Flowers brings Risa a distinct classiness: accessible but distant, intelligent but withholding. The actress in this play, she often holds attention even when she is not really central to a scene. One reason for this is that, in the more intimate setting of the Walker Farm Theater, the angle of the set makes her position behind the counter a focal point no matter what else is happening at any given moment. The visually perfect set has been designed by Alexander Woodward.
The young ex-convict, Sterling, is almost always focused on Risa. Played with great charm and an almost uneasy persistence by Bernard Gilbert, Sterling is ultimately irresistible. He has a passion for the politics of the day, a need for money, and a desire for the girl of his dreams. Coming from the hellishness of prison into the delights of this neighborhood joint Sterling's growth from rogue to gentleman is a delight as played by Gilbert (this was Fishburne's award-winning role).
Bernard Gilber, Eboni Flowers; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Raphael Peacock; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Raphael Peacock shines as Memphis, the coffee shop's owner who is determined to get what his ownership deed demands for his place when the city takes it. He is a typical male of the period, with his lack of appreciation of his staff, a determined attitude about the morality of the day, and a social consideration for his clientele. Peacock is wonderful here, playing the humanity of an ego, the warmth of a friend who mourns more than anyone the demise of a man he dislikes. That customer, the mentally limited Hambone, played nicely by Beethoven Oden, is a presence in a booth or at a table. Oden, with limited lines and an undertone of impending violence, is a constant reminder that the outside world is changing faster than this inside room can tolerate.
Cary Hite does very well as Wolf, the gambler who haunts the diner for its telephone availability where his "Bettors" can reach him. Lawrence Evans plays West, the undertaker across the street who wants to buy this place at a lower rate in order to make a killing in the urban redevelopment market. He is elegantly smarmy and still manages to carry off the picture of gentility. Guiseppe Jones as the neighborhood philosopher perfectluy epitomizes Wilson's finely honed characters.
Considered the happy play in Wilson's cycle, this play pulls you into its world with ease. This production is very accessible and manages to entertain and educate at the same time. Sarita Fellows costumes are in line with the times portrayed. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting is subtle and well done. Sinan Refik Zafar's sound work was intriguing but was out of kilter at the performance I saw. Woodward's set could have benefited by a realistic view through the windows and front door rather than merely a black scrim.
Well acted and well directed and well produced, Two Trains Running is a wonderful ending to a first season in Weston's new second stage.
Two Trains Running at the Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, 705 Main Street, Weston, Vermont, plays through October 21. For information and tickets go to westonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 802-824-5288.