Along with David Mamet and Sam Shepard, August Wilson ranks among the preeminent American playwrights of the last half-century. And “Two Trains Running,” onstage through Jan. 26 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre in a brilliant and unmissable Black Rep production, is among his finest works.
Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, won Pulitzer Prizes for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.” But he’s perhaps best appreciated not for individual works, but for the sheer theatrical ambition of the 10-part cycle of plays to which they belong. Each is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and in “Two Trains Running,” Wilson focuses on the interactions of seven characters in a Pittsburgh restaurant in the 1960s.
Memphis (James A. Williams), the restaurant’s owner, laments that it’s fallen on hard times and now attracts only a few regulars: the philosophical Holloway (Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes), the number-running Wolf (Carl Overly Jr.) and the mentally unbalanced Hambone (Travis Banks).
Also stopping by on occasion are ex-convict Sterling (Jason J. Little) — who is clearly less interested in grabbing a bite than in wooing put-upon waitress Risa (Sharisa Whatley) — and undertaker West (J. Samuel Davis), whose dark garb is complemented by a keen business sense.
Meanwhile, out in the streets, revolution is in the air.
The strength of this loosely plotted play is in its characters, whom Wilson has imbued with an intriguing humanity and an endearing humor. A consummate storyteller, the playwright is a genius at keeping us guessing what will happen next, and keeping us engaged with dialogue that’s as smart and precise as any ever committed to the stage.
Although the production runs about three hours including intermission, not a second of it is anything short of spellbinding. Director Ed Smith has a sure feel for Wilson’s rhythms, and the performances are outstanding. Of particular note are Williams, who brings to Memphis a roughhewn authenticity, and Davis, who delivers a masterclass in understatement.
In St. Louis, standing ovations have become routine and are often unmerited. But in this case, that gesture is much deserved.