Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two Trains Running ... Right on Schedule


As much as I love drama, particularly those plays written by the masters of the 20th century, one of the great challenges for me (and, I assume, any other reader) has always been pulling the emotion and life of plays off the page. Reading "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is a far more challenging task when trying to combine dialogue and stage direction in your mind to achieve a picture of the action. The saving grace is finding that one perfect production that forever lingers with you and gives you the emotion and life you're seeking and can carry over into future readings.

The Round House Theatre's current production of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" is one that will most definitely linger with me for a long time to come. In advance of seeing a performance this past weekend, I obtained a copy of the play and read it. This was my introductory foray into Wilson's work, and I enjoyed it immensely. The one thing missing, however - as expected - was the humor, drama, sadness, and intensity contained within the story. My reading of "Two Trains" was gratifying, but I knew it would be reinforced by seeing it live, when I could live the play.

And was it ever reinforced.

I'll start with the staging and sound design. The diner owned by Memphis is set in an area of Pittsburgh slowly being abandoned by its residents and demolished to make way for the future. It's one of the final links to the past for a deeply-rooted community of residents, and you expect to see it run down. Scenic designer Tony Cisek successfully achieved that, but it had an even more powerful and personal impact on me - it was a glimpse into some forgotten part of my past, reminiscent of old buildings and diners I've visited in my life, places struggling to survive but still somehow managing to hang on, and hanging on in my memory. And sound designer Matthew Nielson did an outstanding job in selecting just the right music to accentuate the story and the scene transitions. There is a particularly effective use of Aretha Franklin's "Take a Look" that comes at a particularly poignant moment of the story.

In many plays I've seen over the years, there have typically been one or two exceptionally strong actors and a few other ones that are "okay" and provide the underlying support. Not so with "Two Trains;" every single actor delivered powerful performances, and like a great cathedral whose weight cannot be supported if one stone is removed from an arch or buttress, I cannot envision seeing Round House's production stand up if one of these actors was changed. After three hours, you leave feeling as if they are interlocked and are crucial to supporting each other.

Jefferson Russell (Memphis) does a wonderful job in coming across as a man cynical enough to think that things won't change, but hopeful enough to dream that one day they will.  KenYatta Rogers (Wolf) is absolutely hysterical as the local numbers runner and resident ladies man. Michael Anthony Williams (Holloway) gives a great performance as the wise and somewhat cynical voice of experience - almost the play's version of a Greek chorus. Frank Britton (Hambone) does a lot with very few lines, and makes his character come alive as an even more tragic figure when sitting silently at a table lost in his own world. Ricardo Frederick Evans (Sterling) gives a great reading as an outspoken ex-con looking for a way to make a quick buck, but who matures over the course of the play into a man whose thoughts and actions are with others in mind, rather than himself. And Doug Brown (West) does a wonderful job as a man who has seen it all and, even with a hint of exhaustion from life, keeps on going.

And then there's Shannon Dorsey (Risa). With every other character in the play, we are given just enough insight to know a bit about their backgrounds - Memphis came from Mississippi and is divorced; Sterling has just gotten out of prison after serving time for a bank robbery; Holloway makes a living occasionally painting houses; West was a gambler before opening a successful funeral home; Hambone is a tragic figure who becomes permanently scarred because of not receiving payment for a job he had performed; Wolf has seemingly always run numbers. 

But we don't have that same background about Risa; we know she has faced some tragic circumstances, but we don't know what. And for that, I have to single out Dorsey for her performance. With so little background to go on, Dorsey creates a character who is defiant and independent in one moment and scared, lonely, and withdrawn in the very next. Her facial expressions and reactions when she doesn't have any lines are just as funny or heart-tugging (and sometimes more so) as when she is speaking. 

My only regret is that the play ends May 4. In retrospect, I would have loved to have seen it earlier in the run to be able to take in another performance. If I'm lucky, I may still. But if you have a chance to catch "Two Trains Running" during this final week of its run, do so - just leave a seat for me.

And kudos to the Round House Theatre team and everyone involved with the production. It's performances like the one I attended that will keep people coming back to the theater for years to come.

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