As gentle theatrical storytellers go, you can’t beat Athol Fugard. His plays – which have long documented life in both pre and post-Apartheid South Africa – have a slow emotional burn that have often left theatergoers emotionally shaken.
With his newest work, The Train Driver, playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, theatergoers will find Fugard working at his usual leisurely pace. But while the two-character drama is solidly performed and has been surely directed by the playwright, it never reaches the stirring heights of some of Fugard’s other pieces.
Based on a news story from 2000 about a black woman who, with her three children, walked in front of a speeding train in South Africa’s Cape Flats, the play centers on Roelf (Ritchie Coster), who has experienced a similar tragedy. The event has left him emotionally and psychologically unglued and he has journeyed to a barren squatter camp (rendered with bleak realism by scenic designer Christopher H. Barreca), where the nameless dead are buried.
Roelf’s hoping to find the grave of the woman and child who died when she, herself, walked in front of his train, and at the camp, he meets Simon (Leon Addison Brown), an elderly man who receives the bodies of unclaimed anonymous corpses and buries them.
Over the course of six scenes (which are framed by a prologue and epilogue that make the work a bittersweet memory play for Simon), theatergoers experience the evolution of these two men’s relationship – one which endangers both of their lives. And their time together not only allows Roelf to understand the actual realties of the lives of the black people around him, it also provides him with a modicum of relief from the grief and anger he feels.
Fugard has directed his two-character play with a careful hand, and both Brown and Coster turn in performances that are filled with remarkable – and often telling – details. It’s fascinating to experience the dignity and serenity that Brown brings to Simon’s evening routine, heating a small plate of canned food over an open candle and eating in silence, while Roelf details the events that have brought him to the camp.
Similarly, Coster brings a painful level of judgmental disgust to an early outburst from Roelf about how Simon marks each with industrial debris, not as a makeshift symbol of respect for the deceased, but simply to indicate which pieces of the sandy plain he has used.
The actors also infuse their performances, filled with chilly reserve as the two men meet, with a growing warmth and bonhomie as the play progresses. Still, theatergoers may find themselves wishing that Coster evinced a wider range of shading in his rendering of Roelf’s benumbed acrimony. Brown, in the less showy of the two roles, seems somewhat shackled by Simon’s often silent complacency.
The Train Driver ends with a second tragedy – this one for both men, and while the events certainly carry an irony about how small, personal actions can have unintended ramifications on others, there’s little sense of the profound sadness one senses the conclusion is meant to inspire.