Athol Fugard says that he considers his 2009 play “The Train Driver” to be his most important work. Perhaps it is, but it’s certainly not his most effective. Under the author’s own direction, this two-character 90-minute meditation on guilt is barely dramatic, too obviously symbolic, and so self-consciously Beckettian that I imagine the Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s estate could sue for royalties.
Fugard took his situation—there is no story—from a newspaper account of a poor young black South African woman who committed suicide and took her three children with her by standing in front of an oncoming train. (Fugard makes it just one child, a baby strapped to its mother’s back.) Roelf Visagie, the white, 30-something, traumatized train driver, has nightmares reliving the event, and his life with his wife and children begins falling apart, particularly after he trashes the family Christmas tree in a frustrated rage. He finds himself in the graveyard of Shukuma, a squatter camp on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, directed to the section where unnamed bodies are buried. He wants black gravedigger Simon Hanabe to tell him in which plot he buried the woman and child, so that he can rant and swear at her and exorcise his suffering. The older and gentler Simon claims not to remember. Roelf refuses to leave until he does.
Fugard’s play is all about the necessity of hope, and the central image of a woman so devoid of it that she could commit such an act is powerful. But the playwright relies excessively on the metaphor of white South Africa robbing its black citizens of a reason to live while refusing to acknowledge culpability. We never get a convincing sense of why Roelf has become so unhinged with guilt, despite the character’s reams of narration and declamatory speeches. And though Simon allows Roelf to stay overnight more than once in his tiny shack on the premises, and relations between the men get warmer, no persuasive bond is forged.
Fugard’s deliberate pacing doesn’t help matters. Ritchie Coster is a mercurial Roelf, navigating the character’s many mood shifts well, though he does get bogged down in the dense six-page monologue in which Roelf tells Simon his backstory. Leon Addison Brown is a good listener as Simon and maintains an intriguing air of mystery as to what his character is really thinking, but it’s mostly a reactive role, and he can only do so much.
Scenic designer Christopher H. Barreca’s blasted landscape of refuse-strewn sand, illuminated by Stephen Strawbridge with sensitivity to the daily mutations of natural light, is impressive but only reinforces Fugard’s debt to Beckett. Brett Jarvis’ detailed soundscape is generally enhancing but at times too subtle.
Fugard doles out a bleak fate for both men, but it feels imposed. Indeed, I kept wondering why Simon didn’t wise up and pretend to remember the woman’s location just to get rid of this annoying man. Of course, if he did there’d be no play.
Presented by Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Sept. 9–23. Tue.–Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 244-7529 or www.signaturetheatre.org. Casting by Telsey + Company/Will Cantler.
Critic's Score: D