It should go without saying that South African playwright Athol Fugard’s works are not for the faint of heart or the apathetic. Typically set in apartheid South Africa, they confront the audience with the horrors of a well-documented historical moment, while simultaneously appealing to the full spectrum of universal human emotion.
At their best, Fugard’s works blend a clear (and entirely commendable) socio-political message with believable, complex characters. At worst, they preach at the expense of pacing, characterization and other dramatic essentials. But when Fugard gets out of his own way and strikes a reasonable balance between messaging and literary worth, the result is truly something to behold, simultaneously shocking our conscience and tugging at our heartstrings like some doomsday historical ventriloquist.
The Train Driver, running at Pershing Square Signature Theater, is a bit of a mixed bag, displaying both the best and worst of Fugard’s creative inclinations. Befitting its morbid subject matter, the entirety of the production is set in a graveyard, although one cannot be faulted for not immediately recognizing it as such; this is no white man’s graveyard. The dead, we learn early on, lie in repose beneath ghostly-gray mounds of dirt, with only hubcaps and other bits of junkyard metal planted, wreath-like, marking their presence.
We are introduced to this grim tableau by Simon (Leon Addison Brown), a decrepit old gravedigger tasked with burying the nameless dead that accumulate regularly in South Africa’s infamous ghettos. Daily activities, we learn, include chasing away packs of corpse-hungry dogs and roving child gangs. Following a brief monologue from Simon, the play’s only other character, Roelf (Ritchie Coster), clambers down a desiccated automobile from stage right.
Intoxicated, disheveled, foul-mouthed and appallingly bigoted, Roelf is not at first an easy candidate for our sympathy. However, we soon learn that this bum is not really a bum at all; rather, he is the guilt-racked train driver of the play’s title. The source of his guilt: a mother who lay down in front of his train with her infant child for reasons unknown. Haunted by the nameless individuals whose lives he snuffed out, he has come to the graveyard seeking closure by means of howling his grievances into the deaf ears of the dead. It becomes clear over the course of the production that Roelf is a man who transmutes his sorrow into rage because he knows no other reaction.
Simon is initially skeptical of the visiting white man, imploring him to leave before the dogs (or worse, bands of roving child-murderers) come and tear him apart. Alas, Roelf has nowhere else to go; branded insane by family and community, perpetual guilt is his only remaining companion. Guilt, and the aforementioned black gravedigger.
Simon turns out to be an empathetic man at heart, and, in a characteristically roundabout way, helps the stranger face down demons. In the end, we are left with the conclusion that it is South African society, not the hapless train driver, that is truly sick. Roelf’s “madness” is simply the reaction of a fundamentally decent man who has quite literally collided with the indecency of his time. Fortunately, Simon is on hand to save his soul, if not his life.
The beating heart of the play lies in the unlikely bond developed between Roelf (white) and Simon (black), through which the former sheds his racism and experiences the revelation that he and his oprressed black countryman share a common humanity. Accordingly, his anger at the nameless individuals he killed turns to sympathy. Anyone, he realizes, could be driven to such desperation under the conditions black South Africans lived in.
Roelf’s evolution from narrow-minded bigot to humanist philosopher is fascinating, if not always believable. It’s hard to pinpoint any moment that convincingly justifies such a rapid and full transformation. This is particularly frustrating because for roughly the first half of the play, Fuggard movingly and effectively documents the early stages of Roelf’s enlightenment through his evolving relationship with Simon. To watch such a promising character transform into a cipher for his creator’s views disrupts the flow of the drama and excludes the The Train Driver from the company of truly great theatrical works, including some of Fugard’s own.
But ultimately, The Train Driver more than delivers on an emotional level, transcending its artistic flaws with bone-jarring impact (no pun intended). Leading men Coster and Brown deserve a great deal of credit for this, imbuing their characters with distinctive mannerisms and desperate purpose, as does scenic designer Christopher H. Barreca, whose graveyard forms the perfect backdrop for the play’s nightmarish proceedings. It is easy to imagine a much less effective play without the talents of the men enlisted by the director, Fugard himself, who knows as well as any contemporary playwright how to effectively dramatize painful historical events.