REVIEW: Two Trains Running

This is your last week to see August Wilson’s play tackling Civil Rights, at its best on the Penumbra stage

When Hambone first appears, flying onto the intimate Penumbra Theatre stage, passionately yelling, “I WANT MY HAM!” it seems almost comical. But as August Wilson’s Two Trains Running begins to unfold, it becomes clear that this withheld ham represents more than a decade-old deal gone awry: it embodies the great disparity and deep-seated racism prevalent in 1969 America.

Like all of Wilson’s plays, Two Trains Running defines a decade through carefully crafted and powerfully individualistic characters. Set in Pittsburg, the story revolves around Memphis, played by a dynamic and calculated James Cravin, a restaurant owner fighting to get a fair price for his building from the city. But the diner isn’t just a building, and Memphis isn’t just fighting for money. This is a battle to protect the one place a group of weary characters can come day after day to shield themselves from the harsh realities and bitter truths of the outside world. This is a battle for equality and Civil Rights.

In true Wilson form, the makeshift “diner family” is anything but predictable. The smooth-talking Wolf, played by a cool Kevin West, is the town’s go-to guy for placing a bet on the next day’s lottery number—the only viable way to make money with the shortage of jobs and racial tension. Sitting at the same table, drinking the same coffee, and eating the same toast every day is Holloway, the group’s voice of reason. Nobody could better play this part than Abdul Salaam El Razzac, a master of Wilson’s lyrical monologues and the king of calm. In a more understated role than he normally plays, Dennis Spears gives West, the town’s esteemed—and wealthy—undertaker, the perfect blend of disinterest and authority needed to be dynamic yet understated. The curveball in the mix comes in the form of Sterling (James Alfred), an impulsive, passionate young man recently released from jail for robbing a bank (“I was sick of seeing everyone else with money, so I decided to go get some for myself,” he says). It’s Sterling’s conquer-all attitude that ultimately stirs the group to action and empowers them to embrace—and create—change.

And then there’s Risa, the play’s sole female character, portrayed beautifully by Crystal Fox. Risa is the diner’s waitress and the object of lust and love for Wolf and Sterling (respectively). Instead of approaching the role with a fiery attitude or jaded cynicism, Fox builds Risa’s character into a powerful, independent, guarded woman—not incapable of love, but leery of it. She is not cold, however, as we quickly discover through her empathy for Hambone.

At first, it seems that Hambone, played with tangible intensity and depth by Ahanti Young, is nothing more than the town joke—a lunatic who won’t move on after being cheated out of a ham 10 years earlier. (It was to be his payment if he painted a neighbors fence well; Hambone believes he did a good enough job to warrant the ham; the owner disagreed.) But Wilson uses this colorful character to demonstrate that life is not fair, and you need to fight for what you deserve. Really, it’s Hambone’s unceasing determination that drives Two Trains Running, providing an undercurrent of heartfelt motivation and unwillingness to give up on what’s right and what’s fair.

Lou Bellamy’s artful, insightful direction; the gorgeous, true-to-date set design by Vicki Smith; and the intensely passionate acting immortalize the message of Two Trains Running, plucking it from 1969 and transplanting it into today: It’s never too late to fight for what is right, and it’s never too late to make a change.

Two Trains Running
Now through October 30
Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul