The diner of August Wilson’s 1992 Two Trains Running, set in the 1960s, is an easygoing home away from home for drifting souls with uncentered lives. The country house library in which David Mamet places the action in his adaptation of Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance, used alternately as office and after-dinner parlor, is the place where a prosperous family can settle its disputes with maximal discretion. Under their quietude, both places seethe with hidden tensions that erupt to break the decorum: lunacy and drawn guns in the diner, outraged recriminations and threats of lawsuits in the country house. Outside, as per Chekhov’s prescription, the characters’ lives are being irrevocably altered. Here, in quiet desperation marred by occasional frenzies, they struggle to cope with the results, in a surprising variety of ways.
Two Trains Running, as its title image suggests, is a play in which all the characters are on the move, whether they realize it or not. Even the diner itself is about to disappear, since Pittsburgh is planning an urban-renewal project for this once bustling and now run-down street in the Hill District. The African Americans who work or hang out there are on the move as a people too: The time is the late 1960s, and the civil rights movement has given rise to a new consciousness; the new diction of Black Power and Black Pride supplies one of the clusters of verbal leitmotifs woven through Wilson’s script, its key phrases upheld, ridiculed, debated, interpreted. Justice, another topic constantly batted around, is at the core of the three major characters’ stories: Memphis Lee (Frankie Faison), the diner’s owner, wants the fair price he suspects the city will not offer him for his building; Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), an innocent-hearted ex-con, wants a fair chance at a decent job; and Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), wants a hamï¿½the fee he was promised a decade ago by the white butcher across the street for completing a piece of honest work. Since that time, he has stood outside the butcher shop daily, shouting, “I want my ham!” until his mind barely knows how to form other sentences. (Among the play’s memorable moments is the heartrending scene in which Sterling tries to teach him to say, “Black is beautiful.”)
In contrast to these social issues, the play proffers a train of thought that runs in a different directionï¿½diagonally, as it were, to the problem of justice for blacks in a white society. Here we get a web of intersecting motifs about community, religion, and destiny: Clearly, this spiritual line is the play’s hub; the freedom train of earthly justice is only an express that steams through it from time to time, all too frequently derailed. On the other line, the train to salvation, everyone in the diner is searching for someone or something to believe in. Fierce debates revolve around two local eminences offstage: Aunt Esther, the healer who claims to be several centuries old and whose presence haunts several other plays of the cycle, and the just-deceased Prophet Samuel, a Father Divineï¿½like figure of whom the diner’s mentally troubled waitress, Risa (January LaVoy), is a disciple. How you discover your destiny, what you believe, how you connect with people are questions that ping-pong through the dense, lively talk. In the end, the three justice seekers and Risa all find destinies of various sorts. Three other habituï¿½s of the place don’t: The cheerful numbers runner Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones); the philosophical retiree Holloway (Arthur French); and prosperous, unhappy West (Ed Wheeler), the local undertaker, in whose funeral parlor, it’s implied, everyone will be laid out sooner or later, rich and poor alike.
Lou Bellamy’s warm, expansive production, the second in Signature Theatre’s all-Wilson season, allows plenty of space for the characters’ ideas to reverberate and knows how to let the actors fill it. The running time is long (over three hours), but you never feel it; the life onstage is too interesting for that. Cannily, Bellamy builds physical life on hints in the script, turning Risa’s handling of the sugar dispenser and Holloway’s exits to the toilet whenever violence threatens into running gags that anchor the verbal flights. The cast has a wonderful, uniform excellence, as a result of which the play’s shape becomes clearer. It’s easy to see now that Memphis Lee centers the action just as his diner gives a center to the characters’ discombobulated lives. It’s certainly easy to see that in Frankie Faison’s commanding performanceï¿½big but never hollow, modulating in a breath from cold tyranny to fury to helpless vulnerability to genial joy, Faison incarnates the spirit of the play, solid and restless at the same time, a questing soul inside a monolith of a body.
The Voysey family’s stately home at Chislehurst, unlike Memphis Lee’s diner, is assumed by its denizens to be a place of permanence. Nothing can change this; the house’s prosperity will go on forever. There’s only one trouble: The Voysey fortune, coming from a family law firm that handles investments for widows and orphans, among others, is built on three generations’ worth of embezzling. Grandpapa and papa Voysey played the game, as the latter (Fritz Weaver) explains to his son and partner, Edward (Michael Stuhlbarg), in the opening scene. But Edward won’t play. After Voysey pï¿½re dies, it’s either go bust in public, like Enron, or string along in secret, scrimping and saving while trying to rebuild the looted accounts. And the latter isn’t easy when you have a clutch of siblingsï¿½an artist, a military man, a marriageable sister who loves shopping, and a spinstery one who loves good worksï¿½expecting their regular monthly share of the tainted money, even after they’ve learned about the taint.
Granville Barker told this tale in 1905, in high Edwardian style, ornate, rounded, and thick with detail. Mamet, with only minimal violation of the period tone, streamlines and compresses it. Picture a change from William Morris wallpaper to a clean-lined, jagged art deco pattern. Sometimes it’s slightly too jagged: Important secondary characters like the spinster sister and black-sheep brother get short shrift; the relation between Edward and his perplexed fiancï¿½e, Alice (Samantha Soule), loses density. But in many ways Mamet makes events tauter and more lucid; despite Barker’s undoubted genius, his playwriting has a woolly streak. It can still hold power, as recent productions at the Mint Theater and Theatre for a New Audience have demonstrated (the Mint gave the New York premiere of Barker’s original Voysey text only a few years back), but its spirit emerges happily enough from Mamet’s terseness.
Slightly less happy, though, is David Warren’s production, which tends to skate over the deep undercurrents that weigh down the Voysey clan: The women come off muted or vague while the men tend to lapse into generalized shouting. (C.J. Wilson, as the military brother, andï¿½astonishinglyï¿½Peter Maloney, as the firm’s wealthiest client, both spoil potentially fine performances that way.) Still, the story, which couldn’t be more up-to-date, rings loud and clear, the designers catch the atmosphere wonderfully, and Stuhlbarg, quiet, methodical, whispery, makes a rivetingly creepy embodiment of integrity at a moral crossroad.