Ed Smith, director of the Paul Robeson Theatre’s current production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” says that he will go anywhere to direct an August Wilson play. Smith has directed seven of the plays in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of 10 plays, each representing African-American life in a different decade of the 20th century.
Smith’s first Wilson play was “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” set in the 1910s, which he directed at Buffalo’s Studio Arena Theatre in 1989 with a cast that included Stephen McKinley Henderson. The following year, he returned to Studio Arena to direct “Fences,” Wilson’s play of the 1950s, again with Henderson.
Indeed, Smith, a highly respected director with more than 150 productions to his credit (including the final play by Ossie Davis in a production starring Davis’ wife, Ruby Dee) has spent some significant time in Buffalo.
In 1967, Smith came to this city to perform with the children’s theater at Studio Arena, and in 1969, he would move here as a resident. During his Buffalo years, Smith would start the Buffalo Black Drama Workshop and would join the theater faculty at UB.
For “Two Trains Running,” Smith returns to Buffalo for the second year in a row. He directed last season’s “King Hedley II,” set in the 1980s, also at the Paul Robson Theatre.
“Two Trains Running” is set in the 1960s, and Pittsburgh of that era resembles any of a number of struggling Northern cities of that time, including Buffalo. The play takes place at a restaurant in a once thriving neighborhood, now in decay and facing the turmoil of gentrification. Memphis, the restaurant owner, knows his business can’t be saved, but is determined to get the price he wants before the bulldozer of eminent domain advances.
The restaurant is populated by some regular customers, including Hambone, a mentally impaired man who keeps repeating the same phrase over and over; Wolf, who takes bets for the neighborhood numbers game; Halloway, an old friend of Memphis; and West, the successful owner of the neighborhood funeral business.
Risa, the waitress, is an aloof yet compassionate person, who has intentionally scarred her legs, ostensibly to discourage the advances of men. This strategy fails in the case of Sterling, a dashing young man, newly released from prison, who finds his way to the restaurant and is trying to find his way in life.
Always in a Wilson play there are characters who lurk in the wings, sometimes overlapping from play to play. In this case, we are frequently reminded of the proximity of Aunt Esther, a wise old woman who urges the characters in Wilson’s plays to embrace their futures without forgetting their pasts.
Under the steady directorial hand of Smith, the Robeson lands a handsome production of this difficult and expansive play, in which Wilson indulges in poetic arias of language, and where cataclysmic events always seem imminent, but never actually happen.
Smith has clearly focused on the ensemble work, the intimate connections and conflicts among characters. He has also focused on pace. The last time I saw “Two Trains Running,” a remarkable production at New York’s Signature Theatre, it clocked in at 3 hours and 15 minutes. This production is of comparable length, and we can expect this to tighten further with playing.
This is, shall we say, an age-blind production. The cast is talented and includes a roster of some of the Paul Robeson Theatre’s most distinguished actors. In this case, some have been called upon to play characters who are rather younger than the ages of the performers.
Putting that aside, the performances earn a great deal of praise.
Fisher gives a spirited and nicely focused performance as Memphis. His relationship to each other character on the stage is clear.
Roosevelt Tidwell III always brings something special to the stage, and inspires both our empathy and our frustration with his portrayal of Sterling.
Hugh Davis carries the burden of incessant exposition and philosophical commentary with engaging ease.
Debbi Davis, master of the slow stare, brings the power of purposeful listening and a droll sense of humor to her portrayal of Risa.
Michael Hicks makes an endearing Hambone, a role for which he is, in contrast to some others in this production, not too old.
I admired the graceful physicality and fluid banter of Vincenzo McNeill as ever-hustling Wolf. Al Garrison brings both dignity and echoes of the perennial wheeler-dealer to his performance as West. The convincingly realistic set was designed by gifted Harlen Penn. Linda Barr provided the period costumes.
Set in 1969, just after the assassination of Malcolm X, in “Two Trains Running,” we see characters trying to find their places, maintain their dignity and advance themselves in an unjust world. This production reminds us of the powerful importance of community, wherever it might be found.
"Two Trains Running"
3 stars (out of four)
Through Dec. 8, at Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave. Performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35-20. Call 884-2013 or visit aaccbuffalo.org.