LA Review: ‘Train Driver’
at the Fountain Theatre
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
October 20, 2010
The South African playwright Athol Fugard has said that this, his most recent play, here receiving its U.S. premiere, is his most important work. The tale is set in a bleak landscape, a blasted piece of barren earth, all dust and gravel, bounded by a wire fence, and dotted with mounds littered with auto parts and other junk. It’s a sort of potter’s field, where unidentified or unclaimed bodies of black Africans are buried. But to Simon (Adolphus Ward), the old caretaker, it is where the unknown sleep; and when he feels they are wakeful, he sings them back to sleep with a lullaby once sung by his mother. He must also defend the graves against packs of hungry wild dogs that seek to dig them up, and against marauding teenage gangs. Now his world has been invaded by a distraught and incoherent white man, Roelf (Morlan Higgins), who’s seeking the grave of a black woman whom he knows only as “Red Head-scarf.”
Gradually it emerges that the woman, with her child on her back, committed suicide by stepping onto the tracks in front of the train Roelf was driving. Unable to stop the hurtling locomotive, he found himself staring into her eyes as it bore down on her, pulverizing her and her child. Since then, she has haunted him, giving him terrible nightmares and driving him to violence that has cost him his wife, his children, and his job. Now he wants to stand on her grave and curse her for destroying his life. But the old man befriends him and offers him shelter. Under Simon’s patient, near-mystical influence, Roelf begins to perceive the terrible deprivations of the poor blacks he has always ignored and the desperation that drove the woman to take her life.
Director Stephen Sachs gives the piece a fine and meticulous production on Jeff McLaughlin’s wonderfully evocative set, and the two actors bring the characters to vibrant life. Higgins vividly captures the desperation of the white man as he fights for clarity and understanding. And he is well-matched by Ward, whose role is often as listener, but he listens eloquently. And his wonderful face, etched with experience, can simultaneously suggest the naiveté of an uneducated man and the wisdom of the ages. His delight is contagious as he remembers searching for wild honey with his father.
A glossary of Afrikaans and Xhosa words used in the play might be a handy tool for audience members.