… inadvertent …

Among the Fugard plays I’ve seen, this — possibly excepting the iconic The Island  — is the finest.   It’s intense, with a driving force.  Especially interesting, although race figures importantly, the tragedy isn’t driven by race but by common humanity — weaknesses and all.  I wonder if some would argue that point.  It’s certainly not characteristic of Fugard.  But just as the characters transcend race, so does the play’s driving idea.

It’s set in what first seems an off-putting, grubby, sandy, junk cluttered cemetery for those who die unclaimed and unknown, on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, but in time it comes to seem a kind of glorious kingdom for the black caretaker-grave digger, Simon.  The junk is transfigured into something most precious.  An obviously mentally agitated man, Roelf, who’s white, throws himself on the dusty scene with powerful fury, looking for the burial of a black woman he can only describe by her haircovering, a “red doek,” and her dead infant — so he can curse at her.

Why?  She’s ruined his life.  Roelf’s a train driver and a black woman, with her infant in her arms, had stepped in front of his train to kill herself and the child.  The impossibility of braking the moving train in time, the screech of the brakes, the knowledge of rolling over the woman and child and pulverizing them — the sheer horror — has forced this relatively ordinary white guy, who shares  characterizing disdain for Blacks of his kind and place, into a frenzy of searching, guilt, heightened awareness, and insanity that has forced him to lose his job, home, wife and family and landed him, desperate and volatile, in this woebegone place.

Roelf periodically pulls out a poignantly small newspaper clipping with the account of the train accident, biting down on the pain, and reminding us that the play is “true,” that is, based on a actual incident.  The clipping mentions that the train driver received psychological counseling — obviously not enough to cleanse him of his killing the woman and child.  The psychologist reminded him that, given the braking time of a train, he could not possibly have avoided the accident.  Still Roelf can find no peace in his shattered soul.

At night the cemetery is visited by violent men, and by feral dogs who come to dig up bodies, which is why Simon works hard with his shovel to dig the holes deep.  We wonder if, at nightfall, the wary Simon will let Roelf into his shabby, pick-a-piece-here-and-there cabin, and are touched when he, without emotion, and not disturbing his own routine, does.

What a subtle shift of relationships!  Simon has a home, of sorts, more than Roelf, a regular White guy, who’s been thrown out of the house forever because his despair pushed him to raging destructiveness.  Simon warms up some beans for himself in a can over a candle and sleeps under a blanket.  Roelf sleeps on the floor.

The cautious bonding between these two traditional arch enemies is brilliantly nuanced.    When they begin to use those formal, sentence-introducing words, “My friend, we take note.  My friend.  In the Beckett-like, existential gloom of the cemetery, the traditional enemies, prejudiced Afrikaner and wary Black South African, come together.

And as Roelf continues his driven search for the woman’s grave, he gradually reealizes the meaning of this cemetery for unclaimed bodies and the implications for the lives of those buried here.  With the shock of hitting new territory, he recognizes what drove an unknown woman to place herself and her baby on the tracks of an oncoming train — despair.  Raw empathy opens him to a new horror that displaces his obsession with vengeful cursing:  a human being can live and die belonging to no one.  Now he yearns to re-write the past so that he can put things to rights, he can claim her at her death.

Energized by his new purpose, heedless of risk, not stopping for night, Roelf digs frenetically to find the woman’s burial.  But it’s Roelf’s turn to cause an inadvertent tragedy — for Simon.  Collateral damage.  As Roelf said early on of the woman who stepped in front of his train, if only people who wanted to commit suicide would just jump in the river, sparing others from involvement.

This outstanding play is brought to life by two magnificent actors.  Ritchie Coster conveys the lean, driven Roelf with his voice, his expression, his entire body in a great, generous performance:  the actor gives all.  (I missed some words because of the Afrikaner accent.)  Leon Addison Brown is powerful as Simon, large, dignified, uneducated, intelligent, wary but with human warmth: he holds the fulfillment of the play in his hands in the unforgettable last lines.

Directed by author Fugard, this is in all facets a brilliant production. Christopher H. Barreca’s design for the cemetery and Simon’s cabin, ingeniously included and heartbreakingly “furnished,” is tonally perfect, and real … I’ll never forget that sand, those hubcaps.  Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting makes one feel the passage of days within the play’s short running time, and Doug Wieselman’s original music supports the emotional content unobtrusively, allowing the Fugard’s dynamic action, canny dialog and magnificent language to come through.

For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The Train Driver  plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan’s Clinton district, West 42nd Street, through September 23rd.

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