Athol Fugard’s "The Train Driver," at the LongWharf
By Tom Nissley
Fighting the chaos within...
Athol Fugard’s new play, "The Train Driver," playing at the LongWharf until November 21, is a monumental tribute to human communication and also the frailty of the human condition. Two men meet in a dismal cemetery for unnamed blacks beyond the suburbs of Port Elisabeth, in South Africa. One is Simon (Anthony Chisholm), the black caretaker/gravedigger who buries the unnamed. The other is Roelph (Harry Groener), a deranged white man, seeking the grave of a woman who has caused him to go mad with frustration. All he can do is to scream invective about her to the black man, who calmly absorbs his anger and invites him to stay with him in his shack, where he will be safe from the ‘Amagintsa’ (gang members who roam at night and who would kill a white man found sleeping near the burial spot).
Roelph was the train driver in the front cabin of a train, which hit and killed a woman and her child when the woman stepped deliberately in front of the train. He saw her seeing him, saw her eyes, and has absorbed all their pain. He wants to find her grave to exorcize the demon that has destroyed his whole life. He wishes he had taken her body from the mortuary and placed her in a grave himself.
Five days pass - each day Roelph unloads his fury onto Simon, but eventually they reach a rhythm of communication that softens the anger and bridges the chasm between their lives. And so it is that the black man, who lives like a hermit in the land of the (unnamed) dead, becomes a priest and shaman for the white man. Gently he coaxes him back to sanity, and ultimately devises for him a plan - tomorrow a new unnamed body will be delivered. Roelf will dig a grave with Simon’s spade, and he will bury the body, as if it is the woman. "Dig a deep hole - put her in - cover her up - put stones on top the way you like... Then it’s over for you. You can walk away. You can go home."
It’s a touching moment that cements the therapy Simon has offered Roelph. The play is not ended. In fact it ends with a bizarre twist. But it is the place of resolution. From this point in the story we can all go home, though no one in the audience will think of doing so.
The production includes a fascinating set - sand and dirt, with graves marked by junk art placed by Simon, that gets reworked by Roelph into patterns of stones. The lighting is stark, and the sound is beautifully integrated. But the strength of the production is in the work by the two men on stage, in a magnificent performance of a dedicated piece of theatre
The play fully deserves for you to experience it. Go, study, be transformed.
Tickets and information at www.LongWharf.org 203-787-4282 Through November 21
Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
Tom Nissley is a well-known realtor in New Canaan, and a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. He has reviewed plays and music events that expand the quality of life in Connecticut for 25 years, and he's also available, of course, to consult with you about real estate.