'Two Trains Running' triumphs

​This is why I go to the theater. Over the course of the three hours of Two Trains Running, the August Wilson epic now playing at Penumbra Theatre, we meet seven characters trying to make lives for themselves in the Hill District in late-1960s Pittsburgh. They gather throughout each day at Memphis's restaurant, one of the few remaining businesses on a block marked for redevelopment by the white folks downtown.

As the story unfolds, each of the characters has their moments, but much of the focus is on Memphis, who is as stubborn as the mule he once owned as a southern farmer, and who is trying to get the most out of the city for the building that he owns; and Sterling, a young man just out of the penitentiary who either can't, or won't, find a job.

While the plot may turn on these two, the play really sings when it just captures the day-to-day, moment-to-moment experiences of the characters, each full of personality and perspective. There's Risa, the restaurant waitress whose desire to be left alone led her to cut her legs 17 times with razors; Wolf, the appropriately named runner for the local numbers outfit, who comes off as a mix of charm and menace. Old Holloway, stopping in several times a day to bullshit with the others and share his blue-collar philosopher's wisdom; the undertaker West, whose wealth seems to have made him an outsider; and Hambone, a mentally disturbed man living on the margins, whose daily routine includes loudly demanding that a local shopkeeper give him the ham he earned for painting his fence (it's a routine that has lasted for nearly 10 years).

All of this gives great meat for the seven-actor company, who take it and make a tasty, hearty meal. It's led by James Craven as Memphis and James T. Alfred as Sterling, but it continues all the way down through the cast, as each actor takes the space they've been given to fully uncover and explore their characters.

Director Lou Bellamy, who continues to show his mastery of the play (he won an Off-Broadway Obie Award in 2007 for his work on it), never rushes the action. It's a perfect example of how a slower pace doesn't mean a dull pace. The silent opening minutes, as Risa goes about setting up the restaurant while Wolf works his books and takes calls on the pay phone, tell us as much about the two characters and their world as most shows could manage in a 10-page scene packed with dialogue.

So terrific material, excellent directing and vision, and some of the best acting you'll find on a Twin Cities stage. What else can you ask for?

Two Trains Running runs through October 30 at Penumbra Theatre.

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