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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The Train Driver

Also see Sharon's review of Futura

Morlan Higgins and Adolphus Ward
There's a fine line between poverty and destitution. Simon, the gravedigger in Athol Fugard's The Train Driver, is poor. He wears a dirty shirt—probably the only one he owns—and keeps his pants on with a rope instead of a belt. He lives on the edge of a sandy field which acts as a cemetery for a squatter camp, in a tiny shack which provides a small bit of shelter from the elements, roaming dogs, and violent youth gangs. He earns a small pittance—enough so he can live on cold cans of beans—by burying bodies which are not otherwise claimed.

The people he buries—these are destitute. They have no family or friends to claim their bodies, no one to miss them when they're gone. They are buried without gravestones and without names. There are no crosses to mark their graves—even small sticks would be stolen for firewood. Their final resting spots are marked only by a few rocks, or an old rusty muffler—just something to mark the spot so Simon knows not to dig there again. There was no ceremony, no mourners, nothing to send them on their spiritual way—and there will be nothing to remind anyone that they once walked the earth.

Into this place of impossible despair enters Roelf, a train driver. This white man has journeyed from his home of relative privilege to find the grave of a nameless black woman. He had no relationship with her, and, indeed, didn't know her. But when this woman killed herself by stepping in front of his train, he became, in some undefinable way, attached to her. And so, he has left his family, friends and therapists—all of whom assure him that he could not have stopped in time and is not responsible for her death—to Simon's graveyard, in an attempt to find her body and somehow obtain closure.

Given Morlan Higgins's past remarkable work in Fugard plays at the Fountain, you can pretty much expect him to give an exceptional performance as Roelf, and he does not disappoint. It's an emotionally fearless performance—Roelf enters the scene just on the edge of sanity. Nightmares have driven him to find the grave; his search for it has taken him on a difficult journey; and you know that if he doesn't find this grave very soon, he's just going to explode. And Higgins embraces all of it, from Roelf's somewhat patronizing attitude toward Simon, right on up through his basic human disgust at the way the nameless are buried that wells up in him and nearly makes him forget about his quest. Adolphus Ward presents a good foil for him: his Simon is deliberate and even-tempered in response to Roelf's passionate words; and Ward makes plausible the idea that Simon, although wholly uneducated, might have a little wisdom that can help Roelf.

There's a scene in which Roelf finally explains to Simon exactly what is driving him to find the woman's grave. It's a fairly long monologue, and Simon listens non-judgmentally while Roelf, fidgeting with his hat in his hand, opens up his wounds. It's beautifully directed and performed—so much so that when the scene ended and our attention was directed back out to the graveyard, I was momentarily surprised to see other members of the audience present. This isn't to say that I felt transported to South Africa by the play—but, for that instant, it was hard to believe that these men were surrounded by anything but desolation.

In his monologue, Roelf wonders why the woman chose to die that way—why did she have to stand in front of his train and make him a part of her death? And while Fugard never answers this question aloud, I felt that Arthur Miller did: "Attention must be paid." By involving Roelf, she made her death matter to one other human being on the planet. For once, she registered on someone else's radar, and how Roelf processes his forced involvement is the journey of the play.

The Train Driver is brief, only 75 minutes, and I have to admit I could have done without the last five. The first 70 minutes are beautiful, tragic, and (in some tiny, unworthy way) hopeful; the final few minutes tack on an ending that isn't earned, and doesn't fit well with the rest of the play. I can respect why Fugard chose to do what he did, but the play ends with an action that doesn't entirely make sense, and a half-laugh that isn't particularly funny. Stephen Sachs's direction is largely flawless, but I think different choices could have been regarding the last scene, which could have made the final image of the play somewhat less objectionable.

The Train Driver runs at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles through December 12, 2010. For tickets and information, see

The Fountain Theatre—Producing Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor; Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs; Producing Artistic Director/Dramaturg Simon Levy—presents the U.S. premiere of The Train Driver. Written by Athol Fugard; Directed by Stephen Sachs. Set Design Jeff McLaughlin; Lighting Design Ken Booth; Costume Design Dana Rebecca Woods; Sound Design David B. Marling; Props Master Shannon Dedman; Dialect Coach JB Blanc; Technical Director Scott Tuomey; Production Stage Manager Elna Kordijan; Publicist Lucy Pollak. Produced by Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor.

Roelf Visagie - Morlan Higgins
Simon Hanabe - Adolphus Ward

Photo: Ed Krieger

- Sharon Perlmutter

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