The Train Driver
By Rosalind Friedman
It is wonderful, really miraculous that Athol Fugard is writing again. Part of this must be the encouragement he is getting from Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Long Wharf. Fugard has made this New Haven regional theatre his home, very much like he did with the Yale Rep and Lloyd Richards so many years ago, and we are the better for it. (Lucille Lortel gave him his start in this country; Arvin Brown produced one of his first plays at LW.)
The Train Driver, directed with intensity by Edelstein, is Fugard's third play produced on the main stage in as many years. This two-character, one and a half hour exploration seems closer to his former very strong works, which addressed Apartheid, than Coming Home and Have You Seen Us? Laced with agony and pathos, it takes place in an Eastern Cape graveyard outside Motherwell in South Africa in February 2001. The set, designed by Eugene Lee and lit by Christopher Akerlind is a large desolate patch of dirty sand dotted with graves and rusted pieces of junk piled atop them. At the back there is a shack so shabby it looks as if a gust of wind could blow it over. Off center is a new open trench waiting for a body; it is being dug with a spade by an older Africaner, Simon Hanabe, a part that Anthony Chisholm does not play but inhabits. A large tan caftan, more holes than material, (Susan Hilferty-costumes) covers his tall, rangy stooped body.
The quiet of the night is interrupted by Roelf Visagie, a younger white man who bursts into the cemetery, looking for the grave of a woman and her baby; he does not know her name, but demands that Simon help him. Harry Groener, a unique actor who has won awards for his roles in musicals, as well as the star turn in Hamlet, portrays this anguished, admittedly bigoted man with great verve.
During the next 90 minutes, we learn that Roelf is a train driver who killed this woman and the baby on her back. In truth, the woman threw herself and her child onto the train tracks; Roelf had no choice, but the incident has ruined his life. He has destroyed his home, turned his back on his wife and children because of this terrible accident. He is there initially to curse this poor dead woman for what she has done to him. By the time the play ends, he has come to a greater realization of her life, her struggles, so much so that he is saddened by the fact that no one came to claim her body in the funeral home.
As Roelf shares the days and nights with this dedicated gravedigger, he learns that Simon places objects on the graves to protect them from wild dogs, wind and the fierce gangs that steal and kill. He is warned not to stray at night, to stay close to the shack with Simon. Ignoring this admonition is his undoing. The Train Driver is transformative in its message and a lesson for all of us.
One of the most powerful lines in the play is the one in which Roelf Viagie says: “I am the last one she saw; I looked into her eyes and she looked into mine for that split second—I am the last person she saw.”
The Train Driver will play only through Nov. 21 at Long Wharf.
This review was first aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO.