Nicole Lewis (Risa), Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee), Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” at Arena Stage. (C. Stanley Photography)
Theater critic

When justice is being done to a play by August Wilson, a serenity takes hold in the auditorium. The assurance that hardship and wisdom, pain and poetry, are going to meet and mingle on the stage with the required quantities of talent and insight puts a spectator at blissful ease. The brow unknits as the emotions engage.

This sense of well-being envelops an audience all the way through Arena Stage’s outstanding revival of “Two Trains Running,” one of the sunnier comedy-dramas in the Wilson canon. Most people know of the late Wilson’s work by virtue of his best-known title, “Fences,” which was turned into a film that last year earned Viola Davis an Oscar. But avid playgoers know there are many other jewels to be mined from that vein, among them, “Two Trains Running.” That is especially true for the pristine form in which director Juliette Carrillo and an exemplary cadre of actors offer it up on the Fichandler Stage.

The play, like so many of Wilson’s dramas, takes place in a hardscrabble African American enclave of Pittsburgh, among people holding on by their fingertips. “Two Trains Running” is set in 1969 — there’s one Wilson play for every decade of the 20th century — and this one resounds with familiar Wilson themes: of aspirations crushed, of survival by grit and wit, of the long shadow of a brutal history, of spirits and death swirling in the city’s smoke.

And in common with such other plays as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” this one provides luxurious opportunity for actors of exceptional caliber. On the occasion of this co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it premiered, all seven actors qualify for that elite class. If I were forced to choose a couple for particular achievement, they would be Eugene Lee as the aggrieved Memphis, owner of the greasy spoon facing demolition in which “Two Trains Running” is set, and Nicole Lewis as Risa, the waitress whose taciturn manner and mysterious self-inflicted scars betoken a woman in a long-term relationship with suffering.

The events of “Two Trains Running,” occurring over a span of three hours (par for Wilson’s course), are not of the tsunami- energy order of a work like “Fences,” with its big Oedipal confrontation. The characters bring the troubles of the world into Memphis’s cafe only tangentially. West, the neighborhood undertaker, portrayed with a dapper superciliousness by William Hall Jr., pauses for a coffee between funerals of locals revered or invisible; Sterling (Carlton Byrd), fresh out of prison, wants Risa to come with him to a rally in memory of the assassinated Malcolm X; Memphis holds out for more money from a slowly gentrifying city that wants to close him down and redevelop the block.


Carlton Byrd as Sterling and Nicole Lewis as Risa in “Two Trains Running.” (C. Stanley Photography)

With a deft assist from Misha Kachman, whose set design optimally furnishes Arena’s in-the-round space, Carrillo elicits from her cast the desired portrait of a transitional moment in a black community, with memories still fresh of the country’s racist history, and the civil rights movement settling into the consciousness of a generation coming of age.

In the story of the cruelty he endured in the 1930s in his native Mississippi, Lee’s Memphis is accorded one of the evening’s most moving monologues, a tale that helps to explain his intransigence toward anyone who imagines they can get the better of him. It is through Memphis, too, that “Two Trains Running” advances one of its central themes, that of wounds and scores forever waiting for redress. In the meantime, the amusingly misguided Sterling — as rootless in his rebellion, it seems, as Memphis is cemented in place in defiance — patiently tries to teach the brain-injured Hambone (Frank Riley III) the lingo of the black power movement. 

That the damage all of these characters embody comes across so effectively — and in no one more than Lewis, in a performance of seemingly effortless grace — is a testament to the deep affinity that Carrillo has encouraged her actors to find for their characters, and the entertaining spectrum of personalities that end up onstage as a result.

As the endlessly gregarious Holloway, holding court daily at a table along the wall, David Emerson Toney excellently rounds out the cast, along with Reginald André Jackson, as the numbers runner Wolf; the work of costume designer Ivania Stack and sound designer David R. Molina deserve mention, too, for the unobtrusive, character-defining clothes and an aural crispness that bolsters the enjoyment of Wilson’s raw, profane, often dazzling language.

Keeping Wilson’s flame alive, 13 years after his death, remains a critical job for the American theater, as this evening in the Fichandler affirms. One hopes to encounter other productions that hold a candle to it.

Two Trains Running, by August Wilson, directed by Juliette Carrillo. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Sherrice Mojgani; music and sound, David R. Molina; vocal coach, Anita Maynard-Losh; stage manager, Cristine Anne Reynolds. About three hours. $71-$111. Through April 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.