20 September 2012

'The Train Driver'

As I noted in my recent report on Sam Shepard’s Heartless (10 September), the first play of our subscription in the Signature Theatre Company’s new season, Diana, my usual theater partner, and I saw the last play of the 2011-12 season after the first of the 2012-13 season.  That’s what brought us over to Theatre Row for the second time in eight days, to see Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver in its New York première, Friday evening, 7 September.  Performed in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the small, variable-space theater in the Pershing Square Signature Center, the company’s new complex on West 42nd Street, the 2010 play is directed by the playwright (as was Blood Knot, the first play in this season’s Signature Fugard series, reported on ROT on 28 February). 

The world première of The Train Driver  was on 19 March 2010 at the Fugard Theatre, a new theater in Cape Town named in the playwright’s honor; Fugard directed the production, which was transferred to the Hampstead Theatre in London for a 9 November opening.  The U.S. première was staged at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles on 16 October 2010, directed by Stephen Sachs, the company’s co-artistic director.  The Signature’s production began previews on 14 August and opened on 9 September; it’s scheduled to close on 23 September.  Based on an actual event, the play recounts the quest of Roelf Visagie, the train engineer of the title, who killed a mother and the child strapped to her back when she walked onto the train tracks, to find out who she was.  The last he saw of the woman, whom he only knows as Red Doek for the scarf she wore around her head, was the expression of despair on her face which continues to stare up at him, depriving him of sleep.  Fugard had read an article in the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian about a woman named Pumla Lolwana who committed suicide that way on 8 December 2000 and took her three children with her, and it set him to thinking about the hopelessness the woman must have felt in the squatter camp where she and her children were forced to live.  Not for the first time after reading a newspaper story, the playwright began “thinking about the possibility of a play, of dealing with an issue, . . . trying to bear some sort of witness to what was happening to people in my country.”  A year later, he began keeping a journal about the play, as is his practice.  He tried for three months “to get inside the life of that woman and understand why she did a thing like that.”  He finally saw he wasn’t ever going to be able to do that and he abandoned the idea. 

Some months later, however, Fugard realized that Lolwana and her children weren’t the only parts of the story: the man driving the train was part of it, too.  “And suddenly that was different.  I knew I could get inside him.”  The writer saw that there were many ways he could connect with the engineer of that commuter train, shared experiences of their lives as fellow South Africans.  “And the moment I did that the play started to happen on paper . . . .”  He drew material from his outsider’s exposure to the squatter camps and “slowly but surely, the play took shape.”  It took the dramatist nine years.  Fugard tells the story by having Roelf explain his search to the gravedigger of the cemetery where the woman had been buried, near the squatter camp of Shukuma outside Port Elizabeth.  Simon Hanabe is Xhosa and Roelf is Afrikaner, and Fugard sees this as another “opportunity for taking the play to altogether yet another level, which is the relationship between black and white in my South Africa.”  Roelf spends several nights in Simon’s corrugated-metal hut, his pondok, in the amangcwaba, the graveyard, and little by little he comes to see Simon as an equal, at least in terms of his humanity and his care, in his own way, for “the nameless ones” buried in his corner of the cemetery.  One way or another, this accommodation has been the leitmotif of the dramatist’s playwriting career, both during apartheid and now, under the country’s majority rule.  (The Train Driver is set in 2010, though much of what happens could be a reflection of the South Africa of 1961.)   Even in the “New South Africa,” the relationship is “still bedeviled” by old prejudices. 

According to Fugard, The Train Driver is his most important play because “the journey that Roelf Visagie makes over the course of the play . . . from prejudice to compassion and understanding, is, in a sense the journey I have tried to make in my life.”  He sees this play as the other bookend in a pair with 1961’s Blood Knot (which he says is the play in which he “found my own voice”).  Both are plays about two men, one black and one white, he points out.  (The Train Driver isn’t Fugard’s last play, but at the time it was chosen to be the final presentation in the Signature’s first Residency One series, it was his latest.)  The writer doesn’t say so, but what I think he’s suggesting is that these two plays, and others with similar pairs of characters, represent Fugard’s constant attempt to reconcile the two halves of his African soul.  With an Afrikaner mother and an Anglo-Irish father of Huguenot descent, he was raised, he says, in “a not exactly liberal family . . . being conditioned unconsciously, by the world in which I lived, acquiring all the prejudices that come with being a privileged member of the white minority, of a white people.”  He says he’s still struggling against his own prejudices, “but I do know that I’ve tried, I’ve dealt with a lot of my prejudice.”  Blood Knot and The Train Driver, with half a century of playwriting between them, are, I believe, Fugard’s accounts of his private struggle—which he says is also his country’s struggle. 

The play itself is also interesting—which is not to say it entirely succeeds as theater.  Only 90 minutes long (staged without an intermission), it’s virtually all conversation with very little action.  There are three things that keep The Train Driver from becoming nothing more than talking heads or a preachy classroom lesson like My Children! My Africa!, the second play in the Signature’s Fugard season (see my report, 11 June): it’s a particularly animated conversation, Athol Fugard is the composer of the dialogue, and it’s deeply, deeply felt—not just by the characters, but by the author.  Since he directed this production himself, I can’t help but feel that he imbued the performances with some of his own passion for this situation and how much he’s said it means to him privately.  (That the two actors, Leon Addison Brown as Simon and Ritchie Coster as Roelf, are superb in all respects in no small measure enhances the effectiveness of the presentation, but I’ll get to that in its own time.) 

Clearly from what Fugard’s said about the play and its origins, it’s an important endeavor for him.  The suicide of Pumla Lolwana, when the playwright first read about it, obviously moved him—so much that he couldn’t get it out of his head.  Even when he saw that he couldn’t get inside Lolwana’s thoughts, he couldn’t drop the idea.  He carried it around with him for nine years, so you know it must have grabbed hold of something inside him.  Furthermore, Fugard’s said that this play bookends his first important work, creating an opening and closing of sorts to his struggle to come to grips with his South Africa.  Even if I hadn’t had some little experience with this kind of commitment in a playwright, I’d sense just from reading what he’s said about The Train Driver that his dedication to this project would affect its stage life.  It indubitably added a level of excitement and energy to the performance that’s probably impossible to quantify.

Fugard’s writing is a significant element in the dramaturgy of The Train Driver, of course.  This writer’s one of those few operating today whose prose is elevated to the level of lyricism and poetry.  (Others in that category: Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and, in his inimitable style, David Mamet.)  Whether consciously or unconsciously—and I don’t know how Fugard composes his plays—his words are put together so that the sound, the rhythm is as important in performance as the sense.  In the case of Train Driver, Fugard uses a lot of both Afrikaans and Xhosa words that add their own lilt and resonance to the lines (though it also helped make following the dialogue difficult at times).  In addition, the contrast between the Afrikaner Roelf and the Xhosa Simon, the way the prosody of one bounces off the speech of the other, accentuates the lyricism of the play.  If almost any other playwright had written this play, it would probably have been inert and static, but in Fugard’s hands, combined, of course, with the other elements, The Train Driver was compelling and absorbing.

Finally, while little happens on the stage other than the conversation between Simon and Roelf, the two men are so dynamic, so energized that for the 1½ hours it takes to tell this story, they seem to be more active than they are.  (I don’t mean physically: Simon, in fact, is pretty restrained.)  Of course, Fugard has the actors moving about the stage and the men do things, but the drama, the conflict, is all internal and verbal.  Nonetheless, that inner struggle is so vital, so anguished, it’s hardly passive.  After all, what Roelf’s searching for is far from idle curiosity: it took him away from his home, his family, and his job.  He needs to know who this woman he killed was, why she did such an extreme thing, and why she made him part of her act.  Verbal though the play is, it’s not two guys sitting around talking. 

Thinking about it afterwards, I see that there’s not a little aspect of Japanese Noh in Fugard’s play.  I have no idea if the dramatist has ever been influenced by Japanese classical theater, or if he even knows Noh drama, but he’s incorporated some of the elements here: a mystical place (the graveyard of the unnamed dead, the ones who died anonymously); a “man of the place,” a sort of guardian spirit who knows its story; a traveler-seeker who’s made a long journey to bring him there (Roelf’s been crossing the country trying to find Red Doek’s identity for about a year).  In Noh, there’s a transformation of the person of the place who becomes a spirit figure, and that doesn’t happen literally in Train Driver, though Simon does undergo a sort of change, but there is a kind of crisis which ends Roelf’s search in an unexpected way.  The actual spirits that haunt the amangcwaba are the dead woman and her child and the transformation is Roelf’s gradual realization, like Fugard’s own, that he can’t ever know anything about Red Doek’s life because his world is so different from hers.  Noh is notoriously inactive and slow-moving, so highly refined that, compared to the more raucous Kabuki, it can seem tedious.  But it’s an intense form of drama (closely bound up with Zen Buddhism) and, if you are attuned to it, extremely moving.  Fugard’s one-acter isn’t so philosophical, it’s much more earthbound; and it’s less serene, so it moves more quickly—but I can’t escape the few parallels once I spotted them.

Dramaturgically, The Train Driver contrasts with the other two plays in STC’s Fugard residency, Blood Knot and My Children! My Africa!  Though it resembles Blood Knot superficially because both plays are about two men, one white and one black, who have a peculiar connection, there’s at least one huge difference.  In Blood Knot, the conflict at the center of the drama is between Morris, the white brother, and Zachariah, the black brother.  Their respective roles in apartheid society split them along racial lines.  In The Train Driver, the conflict isn’t between the two men, but within Roelf—and less so within Simon, who’s a reducing-mirror image of Roelf in a way.  The source of the conflict, interestingly, is the same: the official apartheid system in Blood Knot; the echoes of that system in Train Driver.  Because, however, the dramatic conflict in Blood Knot is between the brothers, it’s a more physically active play (and, thus, I think, can sustain a 2½-hour length); Train Driver’s internal conflict limits the play to the 90-minute length, or it would have become enervating.

That’s what happened in My Children!, I think.  It’s also a 2½ hour play, and it even has a third character, but its conflicts are all intellectual and internal and it becomes a talky, preachy treatise all of whose potential action takes place off stage.  While My Children! becomes diffuse and airy, The Train Driver remains tightly conceived in its hour-and-a-half format so that it works like a fist.  You can’t keep a fist clenched for too long, but while you do, if it’s at the end of the right person’s arm, it can be mighty effective at making a point.  Granted, The Train Driver’s fist is used to slam on a table top in frustration, anger, and helplessness, but the point gets made nonetheless. 

All this is helped tremendously by the acting.  As a director, Fugard must have a way with two-actor ensembles.  He also directed the STC production of Blood Knot last January and February, and that pairing of Colman Domingo and Scott Shepherd established an astonishing stage relationship.  Leon Addison Brown’s Simon and Ritchie Coster’s Roelf are just as connected and each actor delineates a vibrant and vivid character.  When Diana and I were leaving the theater and she remarked on the accents, I told her that from the actors’ program bios, it sounded like both are American.  (I’ve seen Brown in a couple of STC productions, namely August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and Horton Foote’s Orphans’ Home Cycle, and both actors’ credits, including film and TV, are U.S. productions.  The dialect coach for Train Driver was Barbara Rubin, as she was for Blood Knot and My Children! as well.)  Of course, the accuracy of stage accents isn’t as important in a performance like this (though consistency and commitment are essential) as the relationship the actors create and the power of each portrayal, and Brown and Coster knock this out of the park. 

I think it’s significant that Roelf is an Afrikaner, rather than a British South African.  I know that South Africans of English heritage can be as bigoted and resistant as any racist anywhere, but the Afrikaners invented apartheid and led the governments that implemented and maintained the system of repression and exclusion that infested South Africa for over 40 years.  In the new South Africa, after the dismantling of official apartheid and the rise of majority rule, that heritage still haunts the country, and what Fugard is depicting in Train Driver is the slow growth of understanding between white Roelf and black Simon as they learn to see each other as people, not representatives of some amorphous group (“White Men”; “Bantus”).  “They’re human beings, man,” says Roelf often of the nameless dead buried in Simon’s graveyard—but he’s also talking about the people who live in Shukuma and beyond.  In the old days, I imagine, Roelf wouldn’t have even started out on the journey of discovery he’s made to learn who the suicide was; he certainly wouldn’t have spent a year on his quest.  Coster depicts the gradual change in Roelf from anger at Red Doek for drawing him into her tragedy to compassion.  His whole body, including his face, softens.  That he’s an Afrikaner, I think, makes this effort all the more momentous.  Coster portrays this haunted man with an almost frightening darkness and gives a performance of such intensity that he almost turns the play into a monologue.  Variety’s Marilyn Stasio calls Coster’s portrayal “searing.”

Simon’s growth is subtler—mostly because Brown’s gravedigger is a more patient man to start with, but in the beginning, he doesn’t really see Roelf as much more than an interloper, a white man who has no business in his cemetery.  “There are no white people buried here,” he explains to Roelf when the train operator first wanders into the graveyard.  But he lets Roelf stay in his pondok, not that Red Doek’s visage actually lets the visitor sleep, and eventually shows him how he cares for the people buried in his care, protecting them from the marauding dogs and marking the ingcwabas, the graves, so he doesn’t accidentally dig one up to burry a “new one” where someone’s already “sleeping.”  Simon doesn’t actually welcome the intruder, but he accepts Roelf’s presence in his private world and Brown plays the part with quiet resignation as Roelf bares his soul in his effort to exorcise his private trauma.  Simon’s principal function in the play is as an audience for Roelf, and he frames the play with an introductory monologue and an epilogue.  Brown, who’s not a small man, manages to become almost a spectral presence himself. 

There are parts of the performance that are painful, and even though Roelf may have found Red Doek’s burial ground, he doesn’t find her actual ingcwaba or learn who she was.  Brown loses his meager job because of Roelf’s presence in the amangcwaba, leaving him with nowhere to go and no work.  In a way, however, Coster shows that he’s come to terms with what he has learned—though the final outcome, which seemed to me to be gratuitously shocking, isn’t a good one.

Christopher H. Barreca’s graveyard set is about as bleak a stage environment as I’ve seen in recent memory.  Charles Isherwood of the New York Times even calls it Beckettian.  (In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli describes the set as “post-apocalyptic,” but I find that reductive.  If this landscape were the result of a science-fiction apocalypse, we could just shrug it off as sort of normal.  But it’s not.  The devastated terrain exists in an ostensibly prosperous, democratic South Africa at peace.)  Barreca also designed Fugard’s shanty set for STC’s Blood Knot, but while that was dismal and cheerless, the Shukuma cemetery is Fugard’s version of a blasted heath: a dirt plot stretching over the whole stage—the Linney is configured as a proscenium with the playing area along the wide length of the room with the spectators arrayed in six rows along the front—with small mounds inches apart, randomly placed with what looks like bits of junk and debris strewn on top.  In the upstage center is a square panel of corrugated metal which Simon later rotates 180 degrees to reveal the inside of the tiny shack where he eats his meals out of a can heated over a single candle and sleeps essentially sitting up.  At the far right of the stage is a large heap of rubble the foundation of which is a rusting shell of a car.  Everything is a sort of grayish brown—not a lick of green or any other color whatsoever; nothing has grown here for decades or likely will any time again.  It’s not hard to imagine what the rest of the squatter camp looks like.  This is where Simon not only works, but lives, on a dead ground covering dead people.  It’s where Roelf ends his search. 

I found that the press largely dismisses the play too quickly and with too little consideration.  For instance, the New York Post’s Vincentelli, who calls Train Driverponderous” and “snoozy,” censures the play, which she asserts Fugard says “is about guilt,” by objecting that “Roelf is tortured by deaths he couldn’t have prevented.”  But, of course, that’s not the guilt Fugard’s exploring: it’s the guilt—if that’s even the right word—that Roelf feels as a white man for forcing people like Red Doek into lives of such inescapable despair, represented by places like Shukuma, that their only imaginable recourse is an unthinkable act.  It’s not her death for which Roelf, not to mention Fugard, feels responsible—it’s her life.  Vincentelli declares, “You can tell it wants to say something big and deep about the desperate mess South Africa is in, but the metaphor isn’t grounded.”  I say that’s only true if you miss Fugard’s point.  While it’s certainly possible to criticize The Train Driver for having failed theatrically, even dramatically, I’d argue that Fugard didn’t miss his mark intellectually.  His metaphor is well grounded, indeed.

In the Times, Isherwood says the play’s “a modest but eloquent addition to Mr. Fugard’s oeuvre” even though it “often feels like a monologue.”  Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News describes the play as “[e]asy to admire for its sensitivity, but hard to recommend for its sluggish repetitiveness,”  bringing the 2011-12 Signature season “to a yawning conclusion.”  Back Stage’s Erik Haagensen says Fugard’s play is “not his most effective” and characterizes it as “barely dramatic, too obviously symbolic, and so self-consciously Beckettian that I imagine the Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s estate could sue for royalties.”  Matt Windman in AM New York also raises the absurdist influence, saying the play is “a bleak Beckett-style drama.”  The reviewer even concludes by suggesting that “you might even be tempted to fall asleep—if you haven't already.”  (Windman is clearly not a fan of Fugard, whose work he characterizes as “repetitive and excessively didactic.”  He pans all of Fugard's “disappointing trilogy” of this past Signature season, which he dismissed as “boring.”)  

On the flipside, Newsday’s Linda Winer calls Fugard’s The Train Driver, “one of his least forgiving,” a shattering drama” that “sends out tentacles to the psyches of unseen individuals . . . to the questions that connect us all.”  And as if to contradict AM New York’s Windman directly, David Cote of Time Out New York declares that the STC series was “deeply rewarding and satisfying.”  He describes The Train Driver, despite “repetitive patches or thematic hammering,” with terns like a “sober examination,” a “purgative new work,” and “potent, engaged theater.”   Stasio in Variety praised the STC production as “agonizingly well acted and directed with unflinching honesty.”  Direct, determined, with an openness just shy of obviousness,” writes New York magazine’s Scott Brown of Fugard’s play, which Brown calls “a sort of fugue on themes of flagellation” that’s “unsubtle” but not “ineffective.”   On the ’Net, Simon Saltzman describes The Train Driver on Curtain Up as an “emotionally intense play,” labeling it among Fugard’s “arguably best plays.”  Saltzman insists that it “resonates on a dramatic frequency that is uniquely Fugard’s.” 

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