Thursday, January 25, 2018

Get Your Ticket for “Two Trains Running”

Carlton Byrd in Two Trains Running (Nate Watters)
Two Trains Running
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through February 11, 2018

It is a satisfying feeling to know that Seattle Repertory Theatre is doing an August Wilson play and that you can depend on them doing Wilson proud! Their current production of Two Trains Running, a co-production with Arena Stage, is exactly that satisfying, soul-comforting excellence that you would hope to experience.

The cast delivers Wilson’s real-life-with-poetry dialogue beautifully, led by director Juliette Carrillo’s impeccable precision. The scenic design by Misha Kachman of the once-vibrant restaurant with the oddly flickering jukebox creates the ambience to sink into. Composer David R. Molina helps the scene changes become added bonus moments instead of dead silence. Period costuming by Ivania Stack effortlessly evokes the 1960s. Lighting by Sherrice Mojgani helps determine the times of day and evening as the slice of life clock runs through their Pittsburgh days.

We are in Memphis Lee’s restaurant, played by a cantankerous and defiant Eugene Lee, where the City of Pittsburgh is threatening to take his land by eminent domain. Still Memphis is determined he is going to see his price met. And while he’s still owner, he bullies his one waitress, Risa (Nicole Lewis), demands the numbers-runner Wolf (Reginald Andre’ Jackson) quit using his pay phone like it’s personal, tells stories with regular Holloway (David Emerson Toney) and tries to chase homeless Hambone (Frank Riley III) away from getting free food and drink. He jousts with undertaker West (William Hall Jr.), who owns a lot of property and wants to buy the restaurant, too.

A stranger shows up who turns out not to be a stranger. Sterling (Carlton Byrd) grew up in the neighborhood but had gotten into trouble and is now broke and newly released from prison. He wants better for himself and is willing to try anything to get a job. He recognizes Risa and decides that if he can make some money, they are going to get married.

Wilson’s characters are flawed and hopeful humans and their lives are “regular folk” lives. The events in his plays are often small, but loom large to those he writes about. There is a pleasure in simply immersing oneself in their lives and leaving behind your particular time and your particular troubles.

This three hours long play keeps you immersed throughout and there are no dull moments, even though there are a few where little happens except stories and conversation. It’s not suggested as “family” viewing because the characters are adults and swearing is always present. The individual complexities of the characters, too, and their choices, could be perplexing to a younger person who hasn’t yet lived a lot of life in the gray area of not-quite-right and not-really-all-that-wrong.

The politics of the civil rights movement is right outside that bell-hung door, but it is not front and center inside. The lone woman is treated like an uncomfortable living prop, but she’s learned to live with the discomfort and has built a hard wall around her. One can only wonder how Wilson would write his female characters now, if he had a chance to live longer and write more.

There is no moral to learn or lesson to be told, here. We know that when these characters speak about the hope, change and disruptive challenges brought by Malcolm X, we know when we come out of the theater, that that same hope, change and disruption has yet to penetrate enough worldwide to make the differences it should.

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