PLODDING ALONG THE TRAIN TRACKS
What does it mean to persist in a world without hope? Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver tackles human mortality with grim poetic grace, but the New York premiere production at Signature Theatre lacks theatrical drive.
A desolate graveyard lies beneath rusted train tracks in a South African squatter camp just outside Port Elizabeth. Mounds of dirt dot Christopher H. Barreca’s haunting set, where lone gravedigger Simon Hanabe lays to rest the bodies of men and women without family, friends, or even names. Battered pipes, hubcaps, and rocks mark these makeshift tombs – if not to honor the dead, then at least to note their existence. Howling wolves wander nearby and spectral sounds echo across the isolated space in an appropriately atmospheric sound design by Brett Jarvis.
The calm and collected Simon (Leon Addison Brown) sets the wheels of the play in motion with a flashback to “how it happened”: how a white train driver named Roelf Visage (Ritchie Coster) came to this dump one day seeking the unclaimed bodies of a black woman and child who were recently pulverized beneath his train. Simon is a close and compassionate listener as Roelf works through the trauma of being the last human to clasp eyes on this woman before her suicide. What could possibly compel a woman to kill herself – and her child?
Fugard’s play seamlessly bridges the personal with the political, probing the imbalances of race and class in South Africa. These strangers – a black gravedigger and a white train driver – work through the complexities of the white man’s guilt. Roelf is not directly responsible for the accident, but he is undeniably implicated in driving over these anonymous, spectral black bodies, even by the gravedigger; after all, Simon himself lives beneath the train tracks in a destitute shack with no more than an old car seat as a chair and a candle for warming food; if not for the incident on the train tracks, he would remain unknown to Roelf.
Both actors give fine, nuanced performances, and occasional revelations perk the audience’s ears in this exploration of how all lives are imbricated in one other. Yet even as The Train Driver addresses critical issues, Signature Theater’s production is artistically labored. Fugard’s direction feels measured and even occasionally plodding, lacking action and dynamic range.
With this production, the concept is more thought-provoking than the drama itself.
for the S&C review of the U. S. premiere of The Train Driver in Los Angeles, click here.
photos by Richard Termine
The Train Driver
The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York (New York Theater)
scheduled to end on September 23, 2012
for tickets, visit Signature Theatre