Unless the production is site-specific or interactive, I tend not to notice an audience’s spatial relationship to the stage. But at The Train Driver, the front row sits eye-level and inches away from Christopher H. Barreca’s raised wasteland of dirt, rocks and corrugated steel. Spectators practically have their noses pressed to the edge of a South African graveyard; they themselves, in a way, are among the buried. This physical attitude is suited to Athol Fugard’s sober examination of the ruinous debt that the living owe to the dead.
Inspired by the true story of an Afrikaner conductor who could not stop his train from killing a woman who had stepped onto the tracks with her baby, the playwright’s purgative new work ends his Signature residency on a note of tragic expiation. While the company’s three Fugard offerings have not all been equally riveting (Blood Knot was solid, but the overwritten My Children! My Africa! could have used more inspired direction), the overall effect has been deeply rewarding and satisfying. For half a century, Fugard has transmuted the moral catastrophe of apartheid into a body of work that examines privilege, skin, brotherhood and the resiliency of the human spirit under tragic social injustice. His plays address the local concerns of a racist society, but have the heft of global allegory. Fugard speaks—no, howls—for the silenced—just as Simon Hanabe (Brown) digs trash-bedecked graves for “the nameless ones,” as he puts it. One day, Simon’s hardscrabble peace is disturbed by the wolfish, angry Roelf (Coster), the titular driver, who’s in search of a particular grave. Roelf’s life has been shattered by the senselessness of the woman’s death and his part in it. We watch him evolve from wanting to curse her corpse to wanting to claim her as his own. Coster is excellent as a coarse everyman hollowed out by empathy, while Brown, working with less of a character, maintains a bemused if broken-backed weariness.
The Train Driver is not free of repetitive patches or thematic hammering, but this production—scrupulously staged by Fugard himself—gathers force for its inevitable fatalistic ending. Interweaving moral urgency, simple theatrical values and literary language, Fugard shows that potent, engaged theater is not yet six feet under.—David Cote
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