THE TRAIN DRIVER -- A DRAMATIC NARRATIVE AT LONG WHARF
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
Athol Fugard’s plays usually take place in his homeland of South Africa. As a humanistic white man, his focus is generally on race relations during, and most recently after the struggles of apartheid. “The Train Driver” Fugard’s newest play about South Africa is currently running at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
The plot, if you could call it that, is based on a true story. Told mostly in narrative form by black cemetery worker, “Simon” (Anthony Chisholm), the piece is about a train engineer who unintentionally ran over and killed a young black woman carrying her baby. The emotional impact caused him to resign from his job.
Henry Groener plays “Roelf,” the white man whose remorseful feelings are mingled with years of inborn resentment against black folks. Even though the incident was not his fault, he is plagued by the issue and can’t sleep nights. In order to resolve his torture, he spends days in the hot sun searching through a poor, black cemetery so he can rant over the grave of the woman who carelessly stepped in front of his train. Outwardly, he blames her for his sleepless aggravation but inside he has his own guilty demons to fight with. He comes across some unmarked graves and the cemetery worker Simon, and hopes that together they can find the grave of the woman and baby that were killed. Along with his quest he is cautioned about the danger and similar resentments of the black community to his being there.
The dimly lit, somber play is expressed mostly in prose -- similar to Hemingway’s style. There is little action except for some exploratory grave digging in the barren sand, the filling of holes that hungry dogs made while looking for human bones, and the neat re-arrangement of grave markers which are composed of odd junk that black gangs have scattered.
Chisholm and Groener play off each other pretty well. There are a few moments of loud and crazy agitation on the part of Groener while Chisholm is the quiet, patient one. Never the less, the two actors have a hard time breaking the steady pace of the narrative. Slowly marching along to the beat, there is not much tension building, no obvious revelations or changes in character, and no peak climax. The bewildering walking off the set by Groener while still carrying Simon’s shovel, near the end of the play, is stunted. However, narrator Chisholm’s concluding remarks about what finally happened, rendered with well-projected sensitivity, is definitely a lesson to contemplate.
Lately, Fugard has been “telling” portions of his social philosophies through the use of narrators. His last play at Long Wharf, “Have You Seen Us,” used the same technique and received mixed reactions. Perhaps it’s because many laid back Americans preferred to be “shown” an idea not “told” how to think.
In “The Train Driver,” Fugard illustrates that as human beings people of all cultures have similar feelings. To survive and get along together, we must reconcile our differences by attempting to cross the barriers of ignorance and poverty. The playwright’s presentation of life in a different culture is very interesting and the words are certainly insightful -- if the audience comes with patience to listen.
Plays through Nov. 21 Phone: 203-787-4282
This review appears in “On Connecticut Theatre/Nov. 2010