Breathing Room

— Lee's home-style diner's at 1621 Wylie Avenue, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Across the street, the Prophet Samuel, bejeweled with rings, lies in an open casket at West's funeral parlor. A block-long queue of mourners wants to rub his head for luck. A few doors down is Lutz's deli where, nine and a half years ago, Hambone painted the white man's big, wrap-around fence and got paid a chicken when he swore it was worth a ham. Ever since, the homeless man has fixated on the injustice: "He gonna give me my ham!"

If you need answers even the -- some say nefarious -- prophet can't provide, leave the diner and head uphill to 1839 Wylie. Go around back and knock on the red door. That's where you'll meet Aunt Esther. She's either 322 or 349 years old (though she looks 500) and holds forth like a Delphic Oracle.

Beyond Wylie Avenue, in August Wilson's Two Trains Running, it's 1968: Vietnam, Nixon, Dr. King assassinated in Memphis, civil rights, Black Power. But instead of bandying generalities about the times, Wilson stays inside Lee's diner and recreates its world in micro-detail.

Sly, dapper Wolf uses the pay phone to run numbers; 65-year-old Holloway camps out and advises the hopeful to avoid false prophets and visit Aunt Esther. The waitress, slow-moving Risa, slashed her legs with a razor so men would concentrate on her inner being, not her legs. Hasn't happened.

Memphis Lee, the owner, has seen better days -- and worse. When he found water on his property in Jackson, Mississippi, a white man named Stovall stole the land from him. Now Pittsburgh is urban renewing a 12-block area, including Memphis's building. The city will offer much less, he's convinced, than it's worth. Like Hambone, Memphis won't settle for a chicken -- or chicken feed.

Young Sterling, fresh from five years in prison, stirs everything up with new ideas ("black is beautiful"), a new prophet (Malcolm X), and blazing dreams.

August Wilson (1945-2005) grew up at 1727 Bedford Avenue, two blocks north of Wylie, in the '60s. He said, "The ideas of self-determination, self-respect, and self-defense that governed my life in the '60s I find just as valid and self-urging as 1996," when he spoke at Princeton University. Two Trains Running gives this trio of ideas human voices.

Blitzkrieg pacing has become the norm for Hollywood and television (how many movies these days are just extended chase scenes?), and in much theater. Form reigns over content, especially if the form moves at Mach 3. August Wilson's ten Pittsburgh-cycle plays, which chronicle the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th Century, unfold at a more deliberate pace, especially Two Trains. By the time characters make life-changing moves, you know them and their surroundings so well it's as if you've been a long-time regular at the diner. Also like Chekhov's dramas, they blend everyday concerns -- the price of gas up to 72 cents a gallon! -- with talk of hope, rage, injustice, and the "two trains" of life and death, running in opposite directions.

The Old Globe's opening-night performance had some first-act lulls, but overall it's hard to imagine a more faithful or compelling staging. For years, Wilson battled critics -- of the antsy, Rev-It-Up School -- about the allegedly sprawling shapes of his plays. Never once during the three-hour show does director Seret Scott hit the panic-pacing button. Instead, she gives Wilson's scenes, dialogue, and aria-like monologues time to breathe. And sink in.

Nineteen years ago, Chuck Cooper played a leonine Aufidius in the Old Globe's unforgettable John Hirsch-directed Coriolanus. Cooper's terrific Memphis can be a slave-driver (to poor Risa), a heckler (as when he questions West's "leak-proof" coffins), a time bomb, and a poet. Most remarkable: you watch Memphis parade around his domain, like a king, and swear the actor's giving 100 percent. Then, late in Act Two, Cooper doubles his intensity.

Young Edi Gathegi -- remember the name! -- looks a lot like Tommy Smith, the sprinter who, in the 1968 Olympics, made a Black Power fist when handed his gold medal. Gathegi's Sterling moves three times as fast as everyone else, and Roslyn Ruff's withdrawn Risa three times as slow. Together they create an ongoing verbal dance.

James Avery's sage, resonant-voiced Holloway talks as if he's already seen the play (and may be Wilson's raisonneur). Al White's precisely groomed West and Montae Russell's slick, superstitious Wolf are money-grubbers given surface dignity. And, as Hambone, Willie C. Carpenter adds dimensions of subtext to one of theater's most one-note characters.

On Tony Fanning's set, history's in black and white -- large photos of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, and Wylie Avenue in the background -- and Lee's diner's in color. Past-their-prime shades and hues give myriad details a lived-in look, including a menu that gets smaller and smaller as the day of demolition draws near.

Two Trains Running, by August Wilson

Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park

Directed by Seret Scott; cast: Montae Russell, Chuck Cooper, Roslyn Ruff, James Avery, Willie C. Carpenter, Edi Gathegi, Al White; scenic design, Tony Fanning; costumes, Karen Perry; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound, Paul Peterson

Playing through May 27; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

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