August Wilson's Two Trains Running, the seventh in his ten-play Pittsburgh cycle, is a drama of thwarted hopes and stagnation. It is 1969. Malcolm X is dead. Martin Luther King is dead. And though only Malcolm is mentioned by name, the ghost of King hovers over the proceedings, contributing to the miasma of desperation.
All of Wilson's characters are stuck in one way or another. Memphis, the play's protagonist, is about to lose his diner to urban renewal, but city hall won't pay him the price he deserves for the property. Sterling, just out of prison, can't get a job in the steel mills because he isn't in the union, and he can't join the union because he doesn't have a job in the steel mills. Hambone just wants the ham he was promised.
This stuckedness seeps into every corner of the play, appearing in Wilson's trademark circular conversations, in the deadening routines of the characters' lives (one repeatedly asks for sugar he never uses), even in the choices they make—what number to play, what to have for lunch. They have choices, you understand; what they don't have are viable alternatives. Like the Muddy Waters song that gives the play its name says, "Well, now, there's two trains running / Well, they ain't never, no, going my way."
For a time, Wilson even resorts to teasing the audience, dropping hints of actions that might take place soon—but don't. A gun appears early in the second act and then, in defiance of Chekhov, isn't fired. There's a long conversation about burning down the diner for the insurance. A few minutes later, a character shows up with gasoline. The business isn't set on fire.
Director Chuck Smith re-creates this existential nightmare exceedingly well. The pace of the play replicates the feel of daily life, communicating routine without letting us get bogged down in it. In fact, we're fascinated.
Part of that comes from Wilson's beguiling dialogue. Few playwrights have had his facility at capturing African-American speech. Before his death in 2005, he liked to write in diners, eavesdropping on other conversations in the room as he scribbled notes on napkins, and this attention to the way people actually speak really shows.
But Smith and his adept ensemble also deserve credit for the compelling world they summon up on the Goodman stage: Pittsburgh's Hill District, circa 1969. Terry Bellamy, for example, perfectly embodies the stubborn outrage that's slowly wearing down Memphis—he wants that price for his building, no less. And the weary way Nambi E. Kelley's Risa slowly crosses the stage, delivering another cup of coffee or another bowl of beans, speaks volumes about her life and lack of prospects.
Yes, the work documents a specific time and place in African-American history, but the beauty of the play—and of Smith's production—is that it, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, also speaks to and for all of us. We're all stuck. We have all felt trapped in lives full of choices but no alternatives.
It takes a brilliant playwright to keep such a dismal world interesting. Wilson manages it for almost the whole play. And then, about 15 minutes before the end of this three-hour behemoth, he stumbles.
Having superbly created a world stuck in the doldrums, he doesn't seem to know how to bring his story to a close. He could have followed Eugene O'Neill's example in The Iceman Cometh and shown how irredeemably trapped all his characters are. But for some reason Wilson tries to sweeten his medicine with a little hope at the end—a little romance, a symbolic victory against the man—and it feels false. Like he grafted a swatch from a different play onto the end of this one.
Back in 1993 I saw Lloyd Richards's seminal production of Two Trains Running, also at the Goodman, and my attention flagged at exactly the same point in the script, which makes me think the problem's in the material. Wilson had two trains he could have taken, and he jumped on the second, the wrong one.
It doesn't ruin the play. But it does keep it from rising to the heights of a work like Fences, Wilson's masterpiece. In the end Two Trains, like its protagonists, feels stuck. Still, it too is a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one.