By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
For over 50 years, South African playwright Athol Fugard used his writing to fight apartheid in his native land. Apartheid ended in 1994; the Lantern Theater's stirring, if exhausting production of Fugard's 2010 The Train Driver shows that the playwright still needs something to fight against.
The Train Driver opens on Simon (Kirk Wendell Brown), a black gravedigger whose daily life is interrupted by Roelf (Peter DeLaurier), a white train driver traumatized when his locomotive killed a young black woman that walked onto the tracks with her baby.
Roelf expresses guilt, torment, and more guilt. He spends several nights in Simon's shack, where the latter protects him from gangs even as Roelf lulls him to sleep with trite-filled, 20-minute monologues about his desire to move past this devastating accident and move back to his comfortable life and family. I would say the plot possesses all the drama of a therapy session, but some very gripping plays have been written about therapy sessions (Equus, The Talking Cure).
Here, Fugard uses Roelf as a proxy of agonized guilt (something DeLaurier fully conveys) over the injustices that still persist. Simon lives in tin-roofed shack. He buries the nameless dead in a segregated cemetery, whose land abuts a region plagued by gangs of knife-wielding boys and whose inhabitants live without running water, toilets or hope. Lance Kniskern's sand-covered set litters its graves with hubcaps, mufflers and debris, and stands in stark contrast to the well-manicured lawns of the privileged dead. Christopher Colucci's tormenting sound design fills the night air with the howls of wild dogs.
Despite his paucity of lines and his character's vastly different background, Brown convinces that he cares enough about Roelf's quest and that empathy can grow across vast divides. DeLaurier, who arrives in khakis and a polo jacket, devolves to a shirtless, shoeless Lear in a graveyard. Matt Pfeiffer searches for the human element in this story, and with these two actors, he finds it.
But in the speeding locomotive, Fugard chooses the wrong metaphor, one that blurs the categories of guilt, blame, restitution, sanction and punishment. In apartheid, he had a monolithic, clearly unjust external enemy to contest, and whose injustices he helped bring to international awareness.
In The Train Driver, there's no such foe, and as such, it's all about him, his own despair, and the indulgence it took to write a play (and present it, at his self-named theater in Cape Town, no less) in what I hope resolved the issue for him enough to not write another 90-minute work about it.
The Train Driver. Presented through May 4 at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow St. Tickets: $10 to $38. Information: 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org