Actor Dennis Spears, renowned more for his singing than dramatic stage depictions, is giving the kind of cool, rounded performance that manifests his expansive gifts. Spears is almost unrecognizable in "Two Trains Running," the August Wilson drama that opened in Lou Bellamy's gorgeous production over the weekend at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. He is thoroughly subsumed in the play's undertaker, West, with reserves of cool detachment and quiet. His characterization contrasts with the spirited stage persona we have come to know.
Similarly, Ahanti Young, an actor of physical and vocal heft known for muscular portrayals, shows us a side of his talent that we've never seen, delivering a tender and touching Hambone. And the usually combustible James Craven is measured and mild as restaurant owner Memphis Lee, while Kevin West imbues Wolf, a numbers runner, with fairness and grace.
These members of the acting company find just the right tone for "Two Trains," which is set in 1969. The action unfolds in the tense, messy transition from the civil-rights to black-power movements -- and in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, although there are no overt references to such larger historical events.
The play centers on Memphis' restaurant (Vicki Smith designed the detailed, true-to-life set), which is in the path of city redevelopment plans. Memphis wants a fair price for his property. The city is low-balling him. The drama is about the struggle for fairness and justice, and about the lives of the restaurant habitués -- sage Holloway (avuncular Abdul Salaam El Razzac); Sterling (lyrical James T. Alfred), who has recently been sprung from prison and wants to wed waitress Risa (an inestimable Crystal Fox).
Wilson wrote his dramas like jazz pieces, with characters supporting each other and taking turns to solo. The people in "Two Trains," and the actors who portray them, all have their moments in the spotlight. Waitress and cook Risa, who scarred her legs so as not to attract hurtful men, is underwritten. Yet Fox has made Risa the center of the production, partly by her allure and stylized, clanking walk. She also maintains her dignity on the receiving end of orders from an increasingly tense Memphis and most of the regulars, none of whom seem to know the words "please" and "thank you."
In all of it, she presents endless stage pictures of her strength and radiant beauty which even she, wary of the corrupting gaze of men, ultimately cannot deny.