Sudden Death

What if the job you perform daily caused someone else’s death?  A death someone chose, using your regular performance of your duty as the means to her deliberate end?  The relation of the killer to the killed in that equation is explored in renowned playwright Athol Fugard’s recent play, The Train Driver, now showing at the Long Wharf Theater Mainstage. The Train Driver is a two man play set in a makeshift graveyard in South Africa dedicated to those who die with no identities, with no one to claim their bodies after death.  The set by Eugene Lee is harsh, as are the spotlights simulating the glaring sun that shine in the audience’s faces during the daylight hours of the action.  Comprised of sandy soil, surrounded by barbed wire, the graveyard looks like a sight of devastation, boasting  discarded bits of automobiles and furniture that Simon, the caretaker/gravedigger, uses to differentiate one grave from another.  For shelter there is only a dilapidated shack open to the audience, its structure formed by a wall and a debris-strewn roof.

The set’s naturalism amplifies the story of the two men – Simon, the caretaker (Anthony Chisholm), and his distraught, maybe even somewhat deranged, visitor, Roelf (Harry Groener) – persons who inhabit a space that feels like the end of the line. As Simon, Chisholm gives us a brusk but thoughtful man used to being alone, working at his humble trade, but also used to being in control of the space he presides over.  No one cares about the people buried there so he has no need to interact much with his boss or any sort of public.  All he need be concerned about are wild dogs and Amaginsta, the roving gang members he avoids by never going out at night.  Simon tries at first to get at what it is Roelf wants – a white man visiting the grave of nameless blacks – then becomes a confidante, a confessor, and finally the one who gives Roelf the task that might help him move on, freed from his idée fixe.

For Roelf was a train driver, a man with a family, living a normal working life.  And then tragedy and heartbreak struck him – not personally but impersonally.  A woman wearing a red scarf (or doek), with a child on her back, deliberately stood in the path of the oncoming train in order to be killed instantly.  Her eyes and Roelf’s eyes locked for one horrible instant.  Since then Roelf has been tormented by her – his victim, his assailant – first he wants simply to curse her grave, but which one is it?  Unsure, he stays on, telling his story, serving a kind of penance, trying to “put right” what can never be made right.  Groner’s Roelf is high-strung, grasping at loose ends, not always making sense, but relentless in his pursuit, maybe for the first time in his life, of a conviction that comes from a sense of outrage and horror at humanity, himself included, and from a sense of communality with victims of the indifferent brutality of a merciless system.

Fugard has called this “the most important play I’ve written” because it is “in essence, a final statement for me” about his relation to South Africa and “the legacy of racial prejudice.”  Fugard sees himself in Roelf and, for the play to deliver its greatest force, so must the viewer.  The Train Driver, in its stark drama, asks us to feel for a moment as shattered as Roelf, as sympathetic as Simon, as at a loss to deal with the violence of the world except through words that find a voice for what no one ever says.

The Train Driver by Athol Fugard, directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Long Wharf Theatre, October 27-November 21