What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? If you imagine the unstoppable force as the gentrification that’s headed toward a decaying inner-city Pittsburgh neighborhood and the immovable object as the defiant owner of a once busy but now somewhat down-on-its-luck diner, then August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” being presented by True Colors Theatre Company at the Southwest Arts Center through March 10, provides a great object lesson in the physics of the dramatic interplay between powerful opposing forces.
“Two Trains,” part of Wilson’s famous 10-play “Century Cycle” telling the stories of black characters during each decade of the 20th century, doesn’t necessarily have the broad emotional appeal of more family-based entries such as “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences.” Here the characters are mostly mere acquaintances of one another. The setting is a diner that’s about to be bought up by the city for urban renewal. The emotional temperature is kept at a low simmer throughout, and the themes are more political, economic and spiritual than familial.
This may come as a surprise to those expecting a tender, fondly rendered family saga along the lines of Wilson’s other work. But still there’s a lot going on here, and Wilson takes his time in saying it; the play clocks in at just under three hours. Another word of warning: the play is set in 1969, and the N-word is thrown about pretty often by the plain-spoken characters.
The ensemble cast is strong throughout. The work provides so much great material for each of the regulars at the diner that, depending on the various actors’ strengths and weaknesses, it could easily become anyone’s play. I thought E. Roger Mitchell really shone in the part of Sterling, capturing the recently paroled character’s aspirations and his hopeful, and in Wilson’s eyes almost rose-tinted, political optimism. His romantic interest in waitress Risa (Pauletta Washington) is especially well done and touching, and it was a fantastic thread to watch become more central as the action progressed, due to the strengths of the two actors playing the parts.
Wilson has occasionally been criticized for his dearth of female characters. The cycle provides plenty of good roles for men, but fewer and smaller ones for women. Interestingly, director Latanya Richardson Jackson seeks to bring Risa’s part more to the center of the play, and it’s a gambit that pays off beautifully.
Wilson provides just enough material to intrigue us with Risa. She’s a beautiful woman who, as a girl, scarred her legs to avoid the unwanted attention of men. She’s constantly being asked for something by men, and the way her boss, Memphis, treats her borders on abusive.
Washington handles it all with a fascinating, existential sort of forbearance. Her Risa seems to be ticking at a slightly slower pace than the men; they may treat her terribly, but the energy needed to get angry at them is far beyond what they’re worth. She has taken life with an unemotional pragmatism, a no-nonsense forbearance that becomes a sort of silent wisdom at the play’s center. The running joke is that if you want Risa to bring some sugar with your coffee, you have to ask for it; she’d never just bring it as a matter of course.
The set design, by Moriah and Isabel Curley Clay, twin sisters who have quickly established themselves as Atlanta’s top set designers, is as detailed and fascinating as ever. Their imagination and attention to detail are things of beauty: the painted windows, the jukebox, rotary telephone, swinging kitchen door, counters, stools and bits of cityscape seen through the dirty windows. Everything is as spot on and detailed as you’d expect in a Broadway production.
In the end, although True Colors gives “Two Trains Running” a top-notch production, some viewers may find that a sense of emotional connection and catharsis is missing from Wilson’s deeply political play.