Many good things happen at the Hattiloo Theatre. Lighting, I'm sorry to say, usually isn't one of them. From the day it opened, lighting, the one element that determines more than any other how we see a play on stage, has consistently been treated as an afterthought. Once again, clunky design choices married to sloppy, uncertain execution has chopped a perfectly good play to pieces visually and rhythmically. In this case the victim is Two Trains Running, August Wilson's wordy snapshot of Pittsburgh's Hill District in the 1960s.
The cultural upheavals of the 1960s continue to define American culture, even as we sink deeper into the second decade of the 21st century. But Wilson's study of the African-American experience in the '60s barely acknowledges the existence of the civil rights movement, presidents Kennedy or Johnson. Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned in passing. Malcolm X's name is bandied around more but only to contextualize a spirit of unity moving through people who, unable to find employment, had taken to the streets, making Pittsburgh's less affluent neighborhoods look "like Hong Kong." There's no mention of riots in Detroit or Watts, or of Woodstock. Instead, Wilson takes a more difficult, and a more interesting path, building his loose narrative around the everyday problems of regular customers at a neighborhood diner, a kind of anti-Cheers where patrons can always get a bowl of beans and not much else.
Two Trains doesn't tell one cohesive story but is instead a play about storytelling. A colorful assembly of workers, businessmen, petty crooks, and lost souls gather in a diner, owned by a character named Memphis, to talk about family, friends, enemies, charlatan preachers, dishonest businesses, taxes, and the tyrannizing notion that some glad day every darkie in America can pick cotton on their white God's happy sky plantation. No punches are pulled. Two Trains is a rambling noisy mess of a play that evolves over the course of three hours into a nuanced exploration of the social and civic dynamics that will tear America's inner cities apart in the years to come.
Tony Anderson and Tony Wright stand out from the rest of the cast as an aging laborer with lots to say and a wealthy funeral-home director whose daily encounters with death have given him a unique perspective on life. Stephen Dowdy and Jose C. Joiner are also excellent as the determined diner owner and an ex-con with big ideas and limited means. But everything about this show needs to tighten up considerably. Smoother, less invasive lighting changes would be a good place to start.
Through February 26th
Next to Normal at Playhouse on the Square breaks all the rules. It's a musical with limited choreography and nothing that could really be described as dancing. There are some laughs along the way but nothing that could really be described as a joke. Instead of taking audiences back to the Candyland world where most musicals unfold, Next to Normal takes a nakedly emotional plunge into the lives of a family torn apart by mental illness. This acclaimed experiment is also about the culture of health care and all kinds of drugs.
Valley of the Dolls doesn't have anything on "I Miss the Mountains," a folky power ballad about absolute sensation and the manic peaks that are crushed along with all the bad things under the weight of antidepressants. It's one of the best things about Leah Bray Nichols' raw-nerve performance as Diana Goodman, a wife and mother ripped apart with grief over the loss of a child.
Nichols and David Foster are both detail-oriented actors and gutsy singers, perfectly suited for their roles as Next to Normal's unraveling couple. But the story is very nearly turned upside down by the charm and crumbling innocence of Kelsey Hopkins who plays Goodman's bright but fragile daughter and Corbin Williams as the stoner boyfriend who decides to hold on no matter what.
Gary John La Rosa keeps the staging simple, and Renee Kemper's musical direction is right on time.
Through February 12th