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Theatre in Review: The Train Driver (Signature Theatre)

Richie Coster and Leon Addison Brown. Photo: Richard Termine

Athol Fugard's ongoing skill at cauterizing his country's unhealed wounds is on full display in The Train Driver. Just as some wondered if the fall of the Soviet Union might hobble the career of John Le Carré (he's doing just fine, thank you), there were those who suggested that the end of apartheid might also signal the sunset of Fugard's career. Clearly, this was not the case; 20 years later, he is still turning out works of considerable power -- and, seeing The Train Driver, I think I know why.

Fugard has never been one to shy away from the ugly realities of life in South Africa, but, even for him, The Train Driver is a startlingly bleak piece of writing. The lights come up on a landscape -- brilliantly realized by the set designer, Christopher H. Barreca -- so pitiless that it makes the locale of Waiting for Godot look like the coziest of suburbs. We are introduced to Simon Hanabe, a black man who tends a graveyard located in a squatter camp; it's a kind of potter's field, where the bodies of the unclaimed dead are interred. Most of them are unidentified as well, their graves marked only by mounds of dirt topped by pieces of pipe or bits of old machinery. Packs of dogs are heard barking in the distance; the area is menaced by gangs with knives.

Simon's solitary existence is shattered by the stumbling appearance of Roelf Visagie, a white man in an obvious state of high distress. He is looking for the grave of a woman who died recently, along with her infant child. Not that he has come to mourn: "I'll swear at her until I'm blue in the fucking face," he growls.

We soon learn that Roelf killed the woman when, holding her baby, she stepped in front of an oncoming train. Roelf was in the driver's seat, and, having locked eyes with her just before "she and the baby were pulverized under the train's wheels," his soul has been ravaged to the core. The circumstances of the event are never fully elucidated -- Was it an accident? A suicide? -- but Roelf saw something in those few seconds that has rendered his existence intolerable. Seized with contempt for his wife -- "Hygiene; it's her hobby," he says, referring to her skill with a can of Lysol -- he has laid waste to the living room, which was decorated in full Christmas regalia. "Standing there with the pieces of the Christmas tree lying around me," he says, "I suddenly had the feeling that if I could just get her name and swear at her properly," he might be free of the nameless woman he calls Red Doek.

Not much happens in The Train Driver; Roelf takes up temporary residence in Simon's shack -- a lean-to built out of corrugated metal -- roaming the graveyard by day, looking for the remains of Red Doek. (A doek is a head scarf.) But, despite its lack of dramatic action and relentlessly grim tone, the play offers a powerful and disturbing picture of the spiritual divide that, in Fugard's view, continues to separate white and black South Africans. A man like Roelf, living in middle-class comfort and shaped by the tidy Calvinist pieties of Afrikaner society, cannot begin to grasp the savage facts of life for most of his countrymen; it's a wilderness out there beyond the well-scrubbed kitchens and neatly tended gardens, and, having been touched by the truth, Roelf is driven to the edge of madness.

Fugard's South Africa is a confounding place, where equality has been officially legislated but devastating inequalities continue to corrode the country's soul. A mordant critic of social injustice, it is, nevertheless, his ability to explore the spiritual dimensions of the South African dilemma that separates him from other, more issue-driven playwrights..

Fugard is also a skilled director of his own works, and The Train Driver benefits from a pair of superb performances. The way that Leon Addison Brown, as Simon, makes his dinner -- carefully opening a can of beans and depositing the contents onto a metal plate, which he then heats over a single candle -- tells you everything you need to know about his innate dignity in the face of terrible deprivation. In contrast, Ritchie Coster's Roelf is an average man reduced to a near-animal state, prowling the stage in search of an ever-elusive resting place. In addition to Barreca's stunning set design, there's also sterling work from Stephen Strawbridge, whose lighting constantly reshapes the space as it delineates various times of day, and from Susan Hilferty (costumes) and Brett Jarvis (sound).

If, in the long run, The Train Driver is likely to be seen as a minor work, it is no less gripping for all of that. If nothing else, it proves that Fugard is far from exhausting the subject that has constituted his life's work.--David Barbour

(18 September 2012)

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