It is 1969, and the Vietnam War is hurling the country toward self-immolation. In York, Pa., a couple hours west of Pittsburgh, people are dying in race riots. None of this seeps into Memphis Lee's greasy-spoon diner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where life moves in its own rhythms.
This is a haven whose loquacious denizens are occupied with smaller, more immediate matters. They drink coffee, run numbers, hustle and talk, great Gawdamighty do they talk.
At its best, August Wilson's dialogue is like a jazz combo on a good night, with speakers swapping lines like improvised riffs. At its most indulgent it's like a soloist who doesn't know when to quit.
Wilson's "Two Trains Running," which opened Saturday afternoon in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre, directed by Lou Bellamy, is the 1960s play in his great cycle of history plays about the African-American experience in the 20th century, one play per decade.
Memphis (Terry Bellamy), who fled Jim Crow in the 1930s, wants a fair price for his restaurant, which is chronically out of almost everything on the menu. It represents Memphis's life's work, wrung by dint of heroic efforts from an unjust system. It is doomed by an ill-conceived urban renewal program. West (Jerome Preston Bates), the neighborhood's greedy undertaker, has offered $15,000, but Memphis hopes to get $25,000 from the city.
Memphis is onto the racist system that abuses him but blind to his own routine abuse of his lone employee, Risa (Bakesta King), a waitress the leisure of whose gait is matched only by her indifference.
Memphis enjoys gabfests with Holloway (Josiah Phillips), a neighborhood philosopher who can nurse a coffee for hours. He's less tolerant of Wolf (Kenajuan Bentley), a numbers runner who ties up the phone, and Hambone (Tyrone Wilson), a mentally ill street person obsessed with the ham he was cheated out of for a paint job he did a decade ago when the merchant gave him only a chicken.
Enter Sterling (Kevin Kenerly), a young ex-con who's just done five years for robbing a bank. Jobs are scarce, and Sterling doesn't want to go back to prison. His plan for the future is to hit a winning number with Wolf, marry Risa, who sees he's bad news, and take his stake to Las Vegas.
Nothing much happens except for a resolution of Memphis's real estate problem and an off-stage death. Everything unfolds in talk, and the themes are big ones: justice, futility, charismatic leaders (Malcolm X, Prophet Samuel, a passing mention of Martin Luther King Jr.), money, death. That's the script, not the direction. Bellamy, the artistic director of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., has done Wilson more than anybody and has his hand firmly on the helm.
There is also a lot of talk about the past. Memphis fled the South when racists burned his crops and gutted his beloved mule. Sterling robbed a bank because it seemed that everybody but him had money.
Risa slashed her legs to create scars that would ward off the attentions of men. King can get a lot of miles out of a line like, "You want some beans?"
The rhythms of the talk create a ritual space. The twin poles are money and death, which is everywhere. It's brought by the raven-like West, in black from head to toe, to whom each body is an opportunity. It comes in the unseen Prophet Samuel, a neighborhood preacher whose success was measured in Cadillacs, jewelry and girlfriends.
When a character faces a crisis, the garrulous Holloway recommends a visit to Aunt Esther, who washed his soul. She is a mythical character who keeps turning up in Wilson's plays. She is either a 300-and-some-year-old woman who lives at 1839 Wylie Ave. in the District, the latest in a succession of folk priestesses that began when the first slaves were brought to America, or a metaphorical repository of traditional wisdom.
She is also the spiritual mother of these characters. Wolf scoffs at her advice to throw money in the Monongahela River River, but Sterling keeps the faith. The answers to the Big Questions aren't in the intellect but in the repository of cultural wisdom that is each character's birthright.
Sterling has the most compelling arc, yet his character is rather opaque despite a strong performance by Kenerly. He wants Risa, and he's drawn to a memorial rally for Malcolm X, although that may be because it's an excuse to ask Risa out. Risa, too, is not a fully developed character and remains mysterious.
A carefully prefigured violent clash never happens, symbolically breaking Chekhov's rule that a shotgun on the mantle in the first act must be fired by the third. Unlike Wolf, who sees little ("All she needs is a good man," he says of Risa), Sterling vaguely glimpses this, "You take something apart you should know how to put it back together," he says.
There are big, sprawling plays, and there are small, intimate plays. "Two Trains" is big and intimate. In its verbosity, and in its lack of conventional plot, villain (except for an unjust system) or action, it departs from the usual dramatic expectations more than perhaps any Wilson play.
It is probably the least-produced play in the Wilson canon, and the reason undoubtedly has to do with all that talk. It runs about three hours and 15 mintues and almost nothing happens, especially in the long first act.
The talk is vibrant, but it's still talk, much of it about the past at that. Wilson could have used a good blue pencil and an appreciation of the old writer's joke: Sorry it's so long. If I'd had more time I would have made it shorter.
Still, the play remembers better than it plays. The characters worm their way into your brain, and you care about them. One of the most enduring motifs is poor, broken hambone raving like one of Shakespeare's wise fools: "I want my ham! I want my ham! I want my ham!" Don't we all.