"The Train Driver"

By Geary Danihy

Athol Fugard is once again baring his and his country’s soul, this time in “The Train Driver,” which recently premiered at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Gordon Edelstein.

Fulgard is, for many, the acknowledged conscience of his country, and as such he often deals with the meaning and legacy of apartheid, that repressive political philosophy, if one can dignify it with that name, that demanded the subjugation of one race to another for the benefit of the latter. Such subjugation tainted both “master” and “servant,” and that is what Fugard is grappling with here, but that is not why you should get yourself down to Long Wharf to see this play. You should go to see Harry Groener, as train-driver Roelf Visagie, give an admirable tutorial on acting.

The play is metaphor-driven. The train that Visagie drives is apartheid, and it is rushing towards a young black woman with a babe on her back, a woman Fugard chooses not to name -- she is “red doek,” referring to the scarf she wears. She represents all of the ‘kafirs’ who were beaten down – insulted, brutalized, whipped, killed – under apartheid’s oppressive reign. The woman steps in front of the train Visagie is driving and, as the metal monster rushes towards her, she stares into the train driver’s eyes. The train crushes her and her child. 

Visagie can’t get the image of the woman’s eyes out of his mind, nor can he understand why she chose to destroy herself and her child under the wheels of his train. He loses sleep; he becomes erratic; he tears down the family Christmas tree. Haunted, Visagie eventually goes in search of this woman’s grave, only to learn that she was unclaimed and hence buried by Simon Hanabe (Anthony Chisholm), a black man paid to inter the unknown and unwanted.

Chisholm, as Hanabe, provides prologue and coda for Visagie’s quest, but most of the play is monologue as Visagie attempts to work out the meaning of his horrific confrontation with the unnamed woman and child, and it is this working out that warrants attention, for Groener is mesmerizing, offering the audience a sophisticated, multi-faceted portrayal of a soul in torment.

The focus is on Visagie, but one might wish that Fugard had given Hanabe a more active role, for there are issues Visagie brings up that need to be argued, attitudes that need to be questioned, and the play would have been energized by a bit more confrontation between the grave digger and the Dante-esque Visagie. That is not in the offing: Hanabe is more avuncular than aggressive. In fact, he sleeps through most of the second act, allowing Visagie to agonize and philosophize without a counterbalancing voice. In essence, the white man’s role is fully realized; the black man’s role is, in essence, to listen to the angst and be quiet.

Yes. There’s a final comeuppance for Visagie, but it has nothing to do with Hanabe or the nameless woman Visagie’s train – his society – ran over. Visagie pays a price, but one is left to wonder whether the debt is well-defined. His end means…what? The fact that Fugard does not allow Hanabe any righteous anger, any probing questions, means that we have both protagonist and antagonist in one character. Groener, as Visagie, ponders, agonizes and self-condemns, and it is wonderful acting, but is it dramatically satisfying? In essence, no.

Perhaps Fugard’s decision to subordinate Hanabe’s role is his message: Visagie’s society created apartheid, so that society, or its dramatic representative, must deal with it, but if only one side of an injustice attempts to plumb its depths of motivation and consequence, can there be closure?

“The Train Driver” runs through Sunday, Nov. 21. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

This review originally ran in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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