Outside the doors of Memphis Lee's run-down diner, in a once-thriving black section of Pittsburgh, the world is changing. It's 1969, and America is witnessing both the emergence of black power and the catastrophic dislocation caused by massive urban-renewal projects that are sweeping away neighborhoods and uprooting lives.
Inside the diner (with its declining clientele and intermittent bill of fare), the characters in August Wilson's compelling Two Trains Running try to control their fates however they can: getting a good job, playing the numbers, hammering out shady business deals, communicating with the supernatural or fighting for their due from recalcitrant local merchants and a noncompliant city hall.
Two Trains Running is part of Wilson's masterful 10-play cycle chronicling the lives of black Americans during the 20th century. The People's Theatre staging of this evocative drama the seventh of the decalogue is directed by Rus Blackwell and stars Dennis Neal as Memphis, the angry and impatient ex-sharecropper who faces the taking of his restaurant property by eminent domain. Around him swirls a company of friends and acquaintances who are likewise trying to cope with their uncertain, unlucky lives as well as with the historic transformations taking place just outside the safety of the cozy corner eatery (envisioned here by scenic designer Rich Harmon).
The remaining dramatis personae include Holloway (Joe Reed), an opinionated but kindly old philosopher, and Wolf (Kevin Rushing), the fidgety local numbers runner. Tory Kittles plays Sterling, a young ex-con whose charm and likability make up for his tendency to steal and freeload. J.R. Tarver is West, the wealthy, but somewhat shifty funeral director; Randall Jackson is Hambone, the slow-witted laborer; and Marci Stringer is Risa, the sad counter girl.
For the most part, the production is strongly acted and the script's euphonious urban patois ably conveyed. What mars the play's overall effectiveness, though, is a continual loss of momentum: Scenes sometimes peter out and performance energy flags. Tightening up such moments will help this fine company succeed in conveying all the beauty and power of Wilson's brilliant and meaningful work.
Two Trains Running
Through Jan. 29
Seminole Community College, Fine Arts Theatre