Comedy, tragedy and romance are served well with a dose of history and a helping of social conscience in “Two Trains Running,” the acclaimed 1992 August Wilson play currently running at American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg.
A talented cast, directed by theater veteran Bob Devin Jones, re-creates Wilson’s reflections on the lives of black Americans in the late 1960s.
Wilson’s comically charged, slice-of-life story is set in a Pittsburgh diner that is to be demolished to make way for urban renewal. The seven characters who pass through the doomed diner have varying backstories of struggles, successes and failures.
Jones, an actor and playwright, who has directed previous American Stage productions of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and “Seven Guitars,” said his goal is to let Wilson’s poetic work speak for itself. The result is a spirited, engaging production with more laughs than one might expect.
When the play debuted nearly two decades ago, critics considered it a lesser effort by Wilson, who was writing a cycle of 10 plays examining the black experience in the 20th century, each one set in a different decade. His last, “Radio Golf,” was produced in 2005, just months before he died.
But there is more to “Two Trains Running” than just the story of a black business owner trying not to get cheated by the white-run system. There are symbolic references laced throughout. Take Aunt Esther, for example. She is a mostly unseen character, the community’s spiritual adviser, reputed to be 322 years old, whose main advice to solve your problems is to “throw $20 in the river.”
Although her age is treated as a joke by some characters, she says she’s 349, which means she would have been born around the same time that the first African slaves were brought to the American Colonies. Her spirit, the ghost of slavery, runs through this story.
Outstanding in a good cast is Kim Sullivan, who has been in all seven of the Wilson plays that American Stage has produced so far. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based actor considers himself a “Wilsonian,” a devotee of preserving the playwright’s work.
Sullivan plays the cranky diner owner, Memphis, a man who decades earlier escaped from rural racists in the South who cheated him out of his farm. Learning to survive by playing by white culture’s rules, Memphis just wants a fair price for his business but doesn’t expect it to happen. Sullivan gives this character both anger, wisdom and charm.
Actor Alan Bomar Jones, a five-time veteran of American Stage’s Wilson productions, is solid as retiree Holloway, a good friend to Memphis, a true believer in Aunt Esther, and a sharp observer of the social and economic conditions of the community. Some of the play’s best moments are the exchanges between Memphis and Holloway.
Another successful elder black businessman, undertaker West, played by Wilbert L. Williams Jr., has made his money off the community and appears to be trying to take advantage of Memphis, offering to buy the diner at a reduced price. Williams gives this character, who represents death, a quiet dignity.
Also making a seventh return to the American Stage Wilson project is one-named actor and stand-up comic ranney as the mentally challenged Hambone, a sad figure who has spent nearly a decade trying to collect a ham from a man who has cheated him. The younger generation is represented by the ever-morose waitress Risa, played by Renata Eastlick, a Brazilian-American actress. Eastlick plays her as an emotionally and physically scarred woman with a soft heart.
Cranstan Cumberbatch, a St. Petersburg native, plays Wolf, a numbers runner doing what it takes to survive. Bryant Bentley, a veteran of regional theater and American, gives an entertaining performance as Sterling, a newcomer, fresh out of prison, who just wants a good job, a new start and a good woman.