For more than half a century, Athol Fugard has been one of the most important dramatic voices in the Anglophone world. His topic is usually his native South Africa, but his plays always have a wider resonance. Like the playwrights he grew up reading, the great Anglophone writers of the first half of the last century, they are examples of poetic realism -- specific as to the who, what and where, but always with a mastery of theatrical poetry and big themes: death, hope, maturation, human kinship, forgiveness, faith (if of a secular kind). THE TRAIN DRIVER, now at the wonderful Signature Center, is no exception. As is often the case, Fugard has directed the play as well.
THE TRAIN DRIVER is being performed in the Linney Theatre at the Signature, a large, rectangular black box theatrical space. Fugard has chosen to stage the play on an extremely wide playing area, which gives the two characters a sense of isolation. The action is a long flashback, framed by the narration of Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown), the caretaker of a burial ground for nameless dead. His sandy cemetery looks almost lunar. The graves are marked with pieces of junk (hubcaps, old watering cans) because no flowers grow there. Dogs dig up the bodies at night and a cannibal tribe has been known to attack and bury its victims there. This is a desolate, terrifying space, a vision of hell. Simon lives in a small tin shack in the graveyard, living on a diet of beans, bread and water.
Enter Roelf (Ritchie Coster), a white train driver seeking the grave of a young Black woman and her baby. The young woman stepped in the path of his train and her suicide and murder of her child has haunted him. He can't forget her look of despair as she faced down the train, a hopelessness that Roelf has caught from her. He has left his home and come to the graveyard to curse her, but over the course of a few days and nights, forgives her and regains some glimmer of hope. THE TRAIN DRIVER is played out in monologues, silences, and snatches of conversation between the two men, both of whom seem trapped in the past. Simon speaks of his childhood. Ritchie of his unsatisfying marriage and of the death of the woman and child. There doesn't seem to be any present or future for these characters and one senses that no one leaves this graveyard in body or spirit. At his entrance, Roelf has to climb down into the cemetery over the shell of an abandoned car, as if descending into some hellish space. He never climbs back up. The Playbill tells us that this graveyard is on the site of a squatter's camp on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. Fugard has said that his favorite playwright is Tennessee Williams. He has the same ability to create theatrical worlds that are both geographically specific and symbolic. There are also echoes of Samuel Beckett here in the landscape and the desolation one can feel in the silences. Christopher H. Barrecca's vast, bleak set and Stephen Strawbridge's constantly changing lighting perfectly reinforce Fugard's words.
Some may find this an old-fasioned play. It is not a play for people with short attention spans. However, if you are willing to surrender to the playwright's sense of time, his mastery of language and character, you will find THE TRAIN DRIVER to be a rich, joyful (in the sense of Yeat's "tragic joy" -- there are certainly elements of tragedy here) if not a "happy" experience. Oh, yes, the actors are superb. Brown's Simon, content to live in a circumscribed physical world and Coster's Roelf, filled with questions and emotions he struggles to articulate. A totally absorbing ninety minutes.
THE TRAIN DRIVER, written and directed by Athol Fugard. Linney Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. September 5, 2012.