Thursday, April 16, 2015

August Wilson's Two Trains Running Goodman Theatre 2015

The Goodman Theatre's 2015  production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running was beautifully acted and Wilson’s musical prose was allowed its full due in director Chuck Smith’s tasteful rendering . 

You will want to see it if only for its fully detailed and basically loving picture of a group of African-Americans living out their ordinary lives amid but outside of the front line of the racial turbulence of the late sixties.  For the most part their presence and ultimate passing will be unnoted in the annals of the upheavals of the times.  It is not accidental that the thriving business in the neighborhood is a funeral parlor and the restaurant that delivers life (both real food and emotional support) is down to a menu of beans and coffee.  

The diner setting, by the way, seemed to me a bit too large,  too clean and too unused for a location twenty feet away from an encroaching urban renewal rubble pile. The booths looked like they had rarely been occupied and the windows were too large and too clean.  It certainly filled the stage, but this is one of those shows that needs a smaller scale. Designers,  when forced to put it on the stage in a large theatre, are hard pressed to keep it from looking more palatial and roomy than it might have been.   

Nevertheless the world inside the diner is depressing—though not filled with the total bleakness of Harry Hope’s bar in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.  Memphis, the proprietor,  seems to have a thing about keeping things clean even if it is Risa, the slow moving waitress,  who seems to be doing all the work.  Inhabitants and customers  all share the dream of a better situation down the line.   Unfortunately most of their yearnings seem to hinge on striking it rich in the numbers racket or cornering the siphoned gasoline market.  Memphis wants a better price for his restaurant and does get it, but it is clear that the community it served will be destroyed and won’t be automatically replaced by a new building somewhere else.  Risa and Sterling want love or acceptance though there may be little future for the couple if he continues to steal rather than working for a living.  Hambone just wants his tiny fair pittance of ham.  There lies the rub.  These wasted,  down and out lives rove in vast numbers through the streets of our inner cities.     

The last scene of this long play has to strain a bit to reach its conclusion.  Sterling leaves with no explanation and I thought he was setting out to get an engagement ring rather than liberating some meat.  Admittedly it is hard to top the romance novel embrace in the next to last scene that garnered cheers and applause from the audience on the day we saw the show.  Thus, when Sterling  returns to hold up a ham to place in Hambone’s coffin, it seems too obliquely tied to that racial locomotive steaming  all too slowly toward the promised land.  We are left with a too small helping, delivered too late for its namesake, and too few portents of a better dinner that might be waiting at one of the next stops.