Two Trains Running at Signature Theatre, New York

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I am glad I waited a few weeks to see Signature Theatre’s revival of August Wilson’s 1992 play. Immediate reviewers had spoken of the ensemble’s haphazardness – a reminder that the instalments in Wilson’s 20th-century cycle (one play per decade) didn’t initially arrive in New York until they had been carefully reworked on the road by the dramatist and the actors had settled in.

The Signature’s performers seem to have become a well-functioning group, a happy thing given that community was perhaps the central idea in the output of the ferociously gifted Wilson, who died in 2005.

Once again we are in the mostly black Hill district in Pittsburgh. It is 1969. The action unfolds in a diner soon to be demolished, a setting for Wilson’s trademark and unmatched brand of palaver. There is not much plot, save for the fate of the mentally unbalanced Hambone and
of Sterling, who has had difficulty reconstructing a life since his release from a penitentiary.

Among the resident philosophers are Memphis, the restaurant’s owner, for whom purveyors of the phrase “black is beautiful” sound as if “they’re trying to convince themselves”, and Holloway, a retired housepainter as acid about blacks as about whites.

Although Two Trains’ three-hours-plus length feels more noticeable than that of Wilson’s masterpiece, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, I can see why the director, Lou Bellamy, was reluctant to excise anything. Even in his most languid scenes, Wilson can surprise us.

Wilson’s interest in mortality rarely flags, but his characters don’t speak of death merely as the occasion to join Jesus. The older characters have seen too much to believe that standard remedies, religious or secular, will ever work wonders.

Better than the 1992 Broadway staging, Bellamy’s conception respects Wilson’s words. And the cast – especially January LaVoy as the waitress Risa – understand that Wilson’s throwaway lines have no throwaway meanings.

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