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Theater Review: Athol Fugard's The Train Driver Spins Its Wheels

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Train Driver-laist.jpg
Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins star in "The Train Driver." -- Photo: Ed Krieger


Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins star in "The Train Driver." -- Photo: Ed Krieger

Athol Fugard's latest play, "The Train Driver," has the requisite materials for a strong drama--a man is tormented by his part in a tragedy, and the kindness of a stranger helps him work through it. Unfortunately, the titular character roars without having much of interest to say, and the other character is so quiet and low-key he might as well not be there. This is an inordinately talky play that repeats itself a lot, and as a result ends up being a tedious, drawn-out affair. The U.S. premiere production at the Fountain Theatre features two strong actors and a talented director, but Fugard's leaden story keeps the show resolutely earthbound.Simon (Adolphus Ward) tends the dusty graveyard of a squatters' camp in South Africa, a place so poverty-stricken that he can't put wooden crosses on the graves because they'll be stolen for cooking fuel. Instead he garlands the burial sites with stones and rusty automobile parts, so he won't dig up an already occupied area of the graveyard by mistake. One day Roelf (Morlan Higgins) blusters into the graveyard, loudly demanding to find the grave of a nameless woman he’s looking for, so he can curse at her. Simon tries to calm him, to little avail, and the man won't leave. It turns out Roelf, a train driver, is having a bit of a breakdown over the fact that a woman carrying a baby committed suicide by stepping in front of his train, and he doesn't know how to handle the chaos of his feelings about the event and its aftermath.

Higgins is a formidable talent, and he does all he can to make Roelf a vivid presence, but the sheer repetition of his role (Roelf rails about his anger, then he calms down, Roelf rails about his sorrow, etc.) numbs our empathy to the extent that when Roelf finally attempts to receive expiation, it isn’t as moving as it should be. The single most important question of the play, as to why Roelf can't get past this, why he's abandoning his life over an accident that wasn't his fault, is never adequately addressed, and it hurts the reality of the character. Ward is charming and sympathetic as Simon, who wants this lunatic to leave but is finally kind to him anyway, but the character is written largely as an audience for Roelf's litany of rants, and isn't given equal time or expression.

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Director Stephen Sachs gets detailed and emotional work from his cast, but one bit of staging, where the actors walk out into the audience, seems misguided. Fugard’s play doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and it fills the empty space with chatter that doesn’t move the story forward, so one scene’s conversation seems very similar to the rest. Beyond that, the two most important pieces of action in the piece are never seen, but only commented on in the past tense, which dilutes the dramatic impact. The ending, in particular, is so tossed off it almost seems like a joke: “Yes, these major things just happened to the characters and you, the audience, get to see neither of them. Goodnight!”

The Train Driver
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood
Runs Th.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm thru Dec. 12
Tickets (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com