Review: Court Theatre’s Two Trains Running Cannonballs Home

There are two ways to tell history: the Big Men, Big Events timeline that Henry Ford once called “just one damn thing after another” and a more involving, intimate option that observes the daily lives of people—hopes, disappointments and breakfasts included.

It’s no surprise that August Wilson, that master of everyday detail, takes the second approach in his examination of the tumult of the ‘60s, Two Trains Running, now playing at the Court Theatre. This production marks the ninth time Court Theatre and resident artist and director Ron OJ Parson have brought one of Wilson’s iconic Pittsburgh cycle plays to Chicago—a clear example of the quality of work that earned Court its just-announced 2022 Regional Tony Award.

Never mentioning Vietnam, or John Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson, with only one reference to Dr. King and a rally for Malcolm X talked about but never shown, Two Trains Running is nevertheless a story of America and race, shown in the lives of the dwindling habitués of a struggling diner in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Hill District: overworked waitress and cook Risa (Kierra Bunch), fresh-out-of-the-pen struggler Sterling (Jerod Haynes), aggrieved diner owner Memphis (A.C. Smith), philosophical patron Holloway (Alfred H. Wilson), successful undertaker West (Cedric Young), on-the-make numbers guy Wolf (Ronald L. Connor) and, memorably, the luckless Hambone (Joseph Primes).

A.C. Smith, Kierra Bunch and Jerod Haynes. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The show is, by turns, funny, touching, infuriating, inspiring and tragic—all fueled by Wilson’s unmatched ability with the easy rhythms of dialog and the idiosyncrasies of quixotic human behavior. Like Shakespeare and Dickens before him, Wilson’s musical language births fully realized characters—recognized in an instant and remembered long after.

The show’s plot provides a few Chekhovian red herrings—more than one concealed gun, a full gas tank and unpaid fire insurance—but the heart of the drama is the simple improbable injustice of a ham, never delivered to the mentally unbalanced Hambone as the fair wage for a hard day’s work. This modest yet galling affront is a synecdoche for the spreading tragedy of the age and for all the play’s characters who “ain’t willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him.”

Jerod Haynes and Kierra Bunch. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

First performed in 1990, Two Trains Running is full of vivid language that I can’t reproduce here. But one line, spoken by Holloway, shows how very little has changed for the lives of Black Americans; paraphrased, he says, “It’s even illegal to use the words [black man] and gun in the same sentence; unless the sentence is ‘That cop shot that [black man] with his gun.’”

The entire ensemble is full of top-notch actors, many of them veterans of several Wilson plays. Among the vets, A.C. Smith is riveting as Memphis, the justifiably angry diner owner who has seen his property stolen from him by the establishment before and is determined not to have it happen again. And Alfred H. Wilson excels as Holloway, whose hard-won wisdom is couched in layers of humor and world-weary experience. Joseph Primes also stands out as Hambone—his single line, repeated countless ways and with subtle nuance—gives heart to the voice of the show.

The younger members of the cast also excel. Jerod Haynes’ Sterling is a tightly wound mix of aspiration and frustration—search for love, employment and a way out of the limits that surround him. Kierra Bunch, the sole woman in the play, delivers a heart-breaking performance as a weary waitress and cook, who learned long ago to be careful of those around her.

Early on in the play, Sterling worries about pulling apart his last valuable possession—his wristwatch: “You take something apart, you should know how to put it together.”

But what should you do if, as the play suggests, the pieces have never actually been together to begin with?

Two Trains Running runs through June 12 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis. The show lasts two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($39 – $75) are available at www.CourtTheatre.org or by calling 773-753-4472.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.