Why does August Wilson's Two Trains Running, now at the Arden Theatre, run so well? The opening night audience laughed and clapped all night long, with a spontaneous final standing O.
It was talk, people, place.
For a Wilson play to work, director and cast must have an ear for the talk. Wilson's drama is talk, lots of it, and I've seen draggy and static Wilson. But to call these plays "talky" is to miss the point. His achievement was to document how African Americans shared their worlds throughout the tumults of the 20th century. Beautiful interplay: Community steps back to let solo voice speak; genial abuse is exchanged; stories, complaints, and jests fly; men and women hold community together; community closes around them in shared suffering. Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, miraculous in her first Wilson foray, has the ear, pace, rhythm, and so do her cast.
What a cast. Seven actors project singular and unforgettable lives, creating a world. Philly stalwart Johnnie Hobbs Jr., so good in so many roles, is powerful as Memphis Lee, who runs a struggling diner, about to be torn town by Pittsburgh city planners in 1969. Memphis fights for his own against powerful white men - while longing, paradoxically, to take one of the two trains running daily back to the cotton-growing Mississippi of his humiliation. Lakisha May is Risa, the waitress who slashes her legs so men won't gawk. May is all self-control, all principled efforts to help, hold off, or hold. Kashmir Goins performs an initial chorus, then steps across as Hambone, driven crazy by a white swindle. U.R. is fine as Sterling, a murderous innocent just out of prison and likely to return, refusing to believe life is this hard. Darian Dauchan nails the character of Wolf, who abuses the restaurant to do his numbers-running, deluding blacks into belief in luck. And E. Roger Mitchell is great as mortuary man West: One highlight is his soliloquy on the reality of death. But it was Damian J. Wallace as Holloway, resident philosopher, who got the biggest laughs of the night, taking the audience under his wing. You could see this as a less focused play than Piano or Fences, but as these players show, it's cunningly woven, a string bag that pulls tight.
We get glimpses of urban renewal, the midcentury black migration north, the wreckage of the civil-rights movement, even ancient mystical ways (in the hilarious neighborhood shaman, Aunt Ester). Everyone is contending with and denying change. Here the brilliant set by David P. Gordon is crucial, evoking time and place, battered checked floor, steel-tube chairs, ornery jukebox. Audiovisual collages give us demonstrations, faces, voices of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Nina Simone - these proclaim what all embrace and deny.
It's a great time for Wilson. We had an excellent The Piano at the McCarter Theatre, and now the Arden's triumph. Meantime, Denzel Washington is producing the entire "Century" cycle for HBO. Soon, maybe all of us will be hearing the talk.