Sometimes pieces of theater transcend the stage. It is not an easy or a common feat, but when achieved, the results are unimaginably poignant. This spring, the Goodman Theatre has revived the inimitable playwright August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” and its effect is unmatched. It is masterfully unadorned, impeccably written and its realness exists on a level hardly ever mastered in the world of theater.
Directed by Chuck Smith, the production plunges its audiences into the heart of Pittsburgh during 1960s. The play is centered around seven individuals who convene in a local diner, where their pasts and futures always seem to collide. As the group collectively wrestles with the reality of the Civil Rights movement, their personal turmoil also bubbles to the surface as they explore their individual trials and triumphs together.
Though all aspects of the show are tightly crafted and masterfully presented, August Wilson’s immaculate words are never subdued or distracted from. The writing comprises both the foundations of and embellishments within “Two Trains Running,” crafting a solid narrative arc while simultaneously gifting the audience with poignant one-liners they are sure to hold onto. Wilson imbues both his story and his characters with astonishing dynamism.
This production runs during the heart of the Goodman’s citywide August Wilson Celebration, during which events across Chicago honor, highlight and celebrate the incomparable playwright’s craftsmanship. Wilson’s political and personal work rings true now and always; his artistry continues to inform, entertain, and awaken audiences each and every time it is revived and explored.
The Goodman’s latest rendition of “Two Trains Running” includes a dynamic cast that drives the show on a deep and fundamental level. There is no flashy set or sparkling costumes to hide behind here; though the show’s set design is impeccable, the razor-sharp dialogue this ensemble mastered both technically and intuitively drives the production.
Terry Bellamy delivers a powerful portrayal of restaurant-owner, Memphis. His authority is grounding, and while each of the characters seem to chase their dreams and their thoughts in opposite directions at times, his restaurant and his presence seem to unite them in the most salient of ways.
Nambi E. Kelley also delivers a masterful portrayal of the graceful and powerful Risa. Hers is the only female presence for the entirety of the production, and it is unimaginably powerful and prominent. She is quietly resilient and creates a fascinating presence within the play’s multi-faceted layers.
Chester Gregory as Sterling, Anthony Irons as Wolf, Ernest Perry Jr. as Hambone, A.C. Smith as West, and Alfred Wilson as Holloway complete the rest of the brilliant ensemble. They are cohesive while still retaining a deep individual exploration of each character. As they grow, fluctuate and explore their lives in conjunction with the rapidly changing society that they live in the midst of, something truly extraordinary unfolds on the stage.
“Two Trains Running” represents an intense and impactful revival of a show that is always honest and perpetually moving. It serves as the perfect cornerstone to the widespread and important August Wilson Celebration. The playwright’s life and work has something to teach each and every audience member. This season, his work takes flight within the walls of the Goodman but its impact reaches far beyond.
“Two Trains Running” will be at the Goodman Theatre until April 19.