“Two Trains Running” – Arizona Theatre Company

Theater Review – February 17, 2019


Arizona Theatre Company, Center Stage, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

Playwright August Wilson brilliantly captured the Black experience decade by decade throughout the 20th century in his ten play The Pittsburgh Cycle.  His 1990 “Two Trains Running” which premiered at Yale Rep and opened on Broadway in 1992 didn’t earn Wilson any of his many awards but the play still tells a dynamic story of a once vibrant Pittsburgh Hill neighborhood that has declined.  It is set in a now rundown restaurant that once served as the neighborhood’s vibrant center but it is now scantily patronized by mostly older, longtime residents.

The play sharply defines the differences in the way many of the older patrons look at Black lives and how they interact with Whites.  The older residents understand the long ingrained inferiority that Blacks endured but the younger people including the restaurant’s waitperson, Risa, and a just released, on-the-make criminal Sterling, force the older patrons to face the changing environment of 1969.

The play, in a vibrant Arizona Theatre Company production, captures the major forces challenging these longtime residents where it glues you to the Herberger Theater Center stage where it continues until March 3.  But Wilson’s play tackles the history with a light touch and much of “Two Trains Running” has laughter alongside the more dramatic narrative of the evolving Black experience.

Director Lou Bellamy and his superb cast capture both the humor and the touching exploration of the changing community.  Couple Bellamy’s incisive story telling with Vicki Smith’s fine rendering of the run down but down home restaurant, Don Darnutzer’s focused lighting, and Mathew J. LeFebvre’s historically telling costumes and you have the necessary elements to make a perfect production.  But without the resourceful acting of a brilliant company, the play would not capture the pace of life in this neighborhood and make colorfully insightful.

James Craven’s Memphis, the opinionated restaurant owner, deploys his skewed community look with forceful swagger.  Lester Purry’s gambler Wolf uses the restaurant as his pseudo betting office but who has a realistic view of how life evolved.  Best is Erika LaVonn’s Risa, the protective and slow-moving but dynamically alive waitperson who shuffles around but whose character reacts eloquently to the commotion.  Alan Bomar Jones’ Holloway is perfection while Dennis W. Spears’ West, the area’s funeral director, knows how to make a buck off of the rising number of deaths.  Ahanti Young’s Hambone, a man who was wronged years before but remains obsessed with getting his due, is slyly dull but principled.  Young Sterling, the former prisoner, brings a dynamic approach to the changing environment.

If you are looking for powerful drama that focuses on the evolving Black culture and how different generations approach those changes, “Two Trains Running” is an excellent pick.  For tickets, call the Herberger Theater Center box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: A