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Theater review: 'The Train Driver' at the Fountain Theatre

October 21, 2010 |  2:30 pm

Train Driver-1 
Apartheid provided the venerable South African playwright Athol Fugard with a momentous subject. But its aftermath in South Africa has offered equally rich thematic material, engaging questions of guilt, justice and the difficulty of renewal.

This may not be obvious to those awaiting another Fugard masterpiece on the order of “Master Harold … and the Boys.” His later career has been decidedly minor key, his plays becoming smaller and more intimate with every passing year. But he remains a natural-born storyteller, and “The Train Driver,” which is currently receiving its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, sets us up for a fascinating tale -- admittedly more fascinating in potential than in execution, yet Fugard knows how to whet an audience’s narrative hunger.

Simon (Adolphus Ward) is the gravedigger at a ramshackle cemetery on the impoverished outskirts of Motherwell, near Port Elizabeth. Much of his time is spent burying “the nameless ones,” the unclaimed dead who are consigned to an eternity of anonymity in the sand just as they were relegated to decades of economic degradation and social invisibility while they lived. A conspicuously disturbed white visitor comes asking about the bodies of a mother and her baby. It is his story that unfolds.

Train driver 2Roelf (Morlan Higgins), the disheveled and distracted intruder, is offended by the condition of the graves. Hubcaps and other junkyard objects are strewn across them. Simon modestly explains that they're in lieu of flowers. He says that the holes have to be dug very deep to keep the dogs from digging up the corpses. Even more menacing are the knife-wielding boys from the nearby squatter camp that Simon warns won’t take kindly to finding an outsider where their ancestors are sleeping.

Roelf, however, refuses to leave. He’s trying to locate the resting place of a mother and baby who were killed by a train. He was the conductor. A newspaper article mentions the mother’s suicide and hints at the blameless train driver’s traumatic spiral. Roelf feels burdened by a responsibility others say he should just slough off. But innocence is no shield against desperate poverty and hopelessness. The fatal accident has brought knowledge of inequality that Roelf's conscience won’t allow him to deflect.

“The Train Driver” misleads us into thinking that it will be about a transformative friendship. Roelf shares Simon's shack-like living quarters, and the two partake of spare meals and minimal conversation. A familiarity between them develops, but Fugard’s sketch turns out to be more situation than dramatization. The idea of pairing these characters is, in fact, more interesting than their interaction. And the resolution leaves the impression that the drama is essentially an extended metaphor in search of an action.

The production, which brings Stephen Sachs' skilled directorial hand to the work of a dramatist he has served admirably in the past, has a stripped-down Beckettian ruthlessness to it. A tract of arid land, a night sky and an interior room make up the elemental set, designed by Jeff McLaughlin and lighted by Ken Booth. We’re close to the bone of existence, where cultural and class distinctions no longer carry any weight.

Ward’s Simon — quietly watchful, full of natural grace and settled peacefully into his solitude — contrasts with Higgins’ Roelf, a frenzied being caught between worlds and at home in neither. Together they bear witness to a difficult truth: This unwelcoming stretch of South African earth ultimately makes brothers of all races. Now if only this poetic condition had been elaborated into something more than tantalizing fragments.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“The Train Driver,” The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 12. $25-$30. (323) 663-1525 or Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. 

Photos: Top: Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins. Bottom: Higgins and Ward. Credit: Ed Krieger