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Two Trains Running

Signature Theatre scores again with Lou Bellamy's just-about-perfect revival of August Wilson's play. logo
Leon Addison Brown and January LaVoy
in Two Trains Running
(© Carol Rosegg)
There's much talk the past few years about jukebox musicals but little mention of jukebox plays. Yet, there are such things -- usually set in bars or restaurants -- and "jukebox" isn't just a catchall descriptive term. There's always an actual jukebox present. One of the jukeboxiest of jukebox plays is on view in Lou Bellamy's just-about-perfect revival of August Wilson's Two Trains Running, the second entry in Signature Theatre Company's Wilson retrospective.

The thing about the circa 1969 jukebox that set designer Derek McLane stations just inside the door of Memphis Lee's Pittsburgh beanery is that it's broken. Wilson fans may initially be surprised at this, since they expect to hear music threaded through his narratives. Wilson was so enthralled by the blues as an expression of African-American emotional life that he not only wove it into his discursive works but referred to music and songs in his titles. (Two Trains Running nods at the soulful threnody Muddy Waters popularized).

But if the absence of melody represents a literal loss of something tuneful, Wilson's writing compensates for it. The playwright has never been averse to rambling, and indeed, Two Trains Running clocks in at over three hours. Wilson hasn't so much composed a well-made play as compiled a spoken-word album of interlocking character studies. There's some suspense involved, including two pistols wielded by mutually upset figures. Nonetheless, Wilson is more interested in paying off character developments than in installing a central conflict.

Maybe the most suspenseful element in the play has to do with whether the silenced jukebox gets fixed so that literal and figurative music resumes playing for Wilson's eatery habitués. Restaurateur Memphis (Frankie Faison) is concerned with what the city will pay him for his about-to-be-bulldozed corner building. (Perhaps the overarching theme of Wilson's 10-play oeuvre is constant change in the context of continuing racial and class oppression and dissatisfaction.) Risa (January LaVoy) is a deliberately slow-moving, unemotive waitress, who's scarred her legs to discourage men's advances. And yes, the scars are symbolic.

The five regulars -- and only restaurant patrons-- include numbers-runner Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones, who uses the establishment phone as his personal property; Holloway (Arthur French), the in-house philosopher and voice of reason; Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), just out of the penitentiary and happy to play the numbers while waiting to land a job; West (Ed Wheeler), a tight-wad funeral-parlor operator who's been burying local celebrity Prophet Samuel; and Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), who's mentally disturbed and fixated on a ham he's owed by a nearby butcher.

Needless to say, there's byplay between and among the septet: Sterling makes a play for Risa, Wolf has a numbers run-in with Sterling, and Memphis gets fed-up with Hambone's one-track outbursts. But this is a Wilson exercise, and that means the songs-in-dialogue delivered are the comedy-drama's raw meat. Sooner or later, each denizen takes stage to talk about himself or herself -- and sometimes about unseen 349-year-old Aunt Ester, the neighborhood oracle Wilson has inserted into many of his plays. For example, West says about death (not an unusual Wilson topic), "You can live to be a hundred and fifty and you'll never have a greater moment than when you breathe your last breath."

The cast members all attack their lines like disciples on a crusade. There's no first among equals. Faison's gut passion, LaVoy's guarded vulnerability, French's twinkling wisdom, Jones' catlike grace, Wheeler's bombast, Coleman's street charm, and Brown's commitment all cohere like the dissonant harmony Wilson intends his plays to be. And the actors look very 1969 in Mathew J. Lefebvre's costumes. The only minor flaws are some of the shoes; too many look not only polished, which they would be, but new, which they wouldn't all be.

Gifted playwrights are prescient. Truths reassuring and disturbing lurk in their lines. In a speech Holloway gives about carrying guns, he says, "You go down there and stand in front of the number two police station and say, 'The niggers is tired of this mistreatment. They gonna get some guns, and see if they don't arrest you." As every New Yorker knows, the remark could be pulled from this week's headlines. And that's only part of why this Two Trains Running couldn't be better timed -- or better executed.

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