Harry Groener and Anthony Chisholm
in The Train Driver
(© T Charles Erickson)
Harry Groener and Anthony Chisholm
in The Train Driver
(© T Charles Erickson)
The Train Driver, New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre's third Athol Fugard production in as many years, is a trenchant reminder of Fugard's capability at the height of his powers. Once again mining the social divides that continue to plague his native country of South Africa long after the cessation of Apartheid, Fugard has packed the whole horrendous history into a heated interaction between an elderly black man barely subsisting on the lowest conceivable rung of society and an unhinged, entitled white intruder.

Even before the beginning of the play -- sensitively directed by Gordon Edelstein -- we see Simon Hanabe (Anthony Chisholm) puttering about Eugene Lee's desolate, post-apocalyptic trash-heap of a set. The detritus appears to have been arranged with a certain care, and once Christopher Akerlind's lighting scheme cycles convincingly through three days and nights, we realize those mounds of sand are shaped suspiciously like graves.

It's soon clear what Simon is doing here: tending, with a measure of pride and a palpable solicitude, to the final resting place of "the ones without names." A man of few words but a resolute (sometimes resentful) presence, he will be our guide to this remembered encounter: a visitation by one Roelf Visagie (Harry Groener), the railroad driver of the title, who finds his entire life derailed after a young woman carrying a baby uses his oncoming train as a means of suicide.

At first, Roelf is a roiling bundle of rage, self-righteousness, and self-pity -- and, it almost goes without saying, racist condescension. He has come on a skewed, doomed quest: to track down the nameless woman's body and, by spewing curses, vent some of his fury at having had such a trauma inflicted on him by a stranger. In the course of the next few days, Simon will absorb some of Roelf's wrath and through acts of common human decency --- sharing his own meager shelter and food, and just plain listening -- effect a deep healing.

We have seen this progression before in Fugard's work: it's a pervasive theme. What's especially effective in this configuration -- beyond the extraordinarily layered performances of two consummate actors -- is that just when we think we have Roelf's path figured out, Fugard throws in some last-minute corkscrew twists (for which he subtly laid the groundwork). In much the same way that Harry is haunted by having locked eyes with the young woman as she stared death in the face, we're left with vivid, indelible images of two seemingly disparate lives, inexorably entwined.