The Train Driver
The playwright, inspired by an actual incident, sets the scene in an Eastern Cape graveyard near Motherwell in South Africa. Eugene Lee's scenic design opens up upon a desolate, barren wasteland which looks like a junkyard. The headstones, so to speak, haven't any names, while objects, such as a hubcap and a car tire, are scattered amongst rocks.
Simon Hanabe (Anthony Chisholm) digs graves. When Roelf Visagie (Harry Groener) arrives, Simon is initially hesitant but then tries to be cooperative. Roelf, a white man, unintentionally killed a black woman and the baby on her back as the woman committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. Roelf, the conductor, is haunted and desperately seeks to find her grave. But, he cannot since there aren't any markers in this cemetery.
Fugard's playwriting draws the viewer in immediately and Lee's design is absolutely arresting. During the first hour of the presentation, the men sometimes talk at if not with one another. Roelf has many extended monologues. You get the sense that Simon would like to be of assistance but there isn't much he can actually do for Roelf.
Fugard, again and again throughout his intense dramas, alludes to people he either knew or might have known and laces the characters with inner layers of conflict. The men of The Train Driver are attempting, however painful this might be, to cope. Roelf strives, with every ounce of his energy, to redeem himself even if he hadn't any option: the woman stepped in front of the train!
Groener's performance is a revelation. The actor is stoked from the moment he comes on stage. Roelf searches for the woman's grave because of his own needs. He is trapped within self-torture and cannot move on with his life. Simon is more of a supportive yet essential character. Anthony Chisholm, too, is a highly skilled actor who has performed admirably in several of August Wilson's plays and elsewhere. His Simon is nuanced and, in a way, precise.
Roelf and Simon eat meals together but they do not develop a friendship destined to last. These two are a figurative step apart. Simon has a job and purpose and will continue with his work, it seems, forever. He also hopes that Roelf will not endure physical harm. Roelf is the primary focus for Fugard but the playwright is not neglectful of Simon.
The cemetery itself is a scary place: Simon explains that graves must be deep because dogs would otherwise intrude. The squatter camp, without vegetation, feels as if it is inviting violence.
Fugard frames The Train Driver with a prologue and epilogue. His dialogue (as in many of his prior plays) demands that one listen and concentrate.
The dramatic tension, already significant, escalates during the final scenes. It is then that The Train Driver, directed with care and thought by Gordon Edelstein, recalls the fervor of Fugard's stunning works such as Master Harold ... and the Boys and The Blood Knot. Roelf, an existential man, grapples with hostility and, certainly, with himself.
The Train Driver continues at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre through November 21st. For ticket information, call (203) 787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.
- Fred Sokol