Theater Review: THE TRAIN DRIVER (Fountain Theatre)

by Tony Frankel on October 21, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

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There is a Turkish expression: “He that conceals his grief finds no remedy for it.” A train driver named Roelf (Morlan Higgins) is doing everything he can to remedy his all-consuming trauma caused by the death of a black woman and her baby, whose faces he saw immediately before they were mutilated under the wheels of the train he was operating.

He has searched villages to morgues, alienating his family and employer in the process, to locate the name of the woman. His travels have brought him to the graveyard of a squatter camp in South Africa where graves are covered in dusty dirt and rocks, with discarded junk as flowers. No one knows the names of the bodies, and gravedigger Simon (Adolphus Ward) must bury them deep so the dogs don’t dig them up at night and eat them.

We assume, being that this is a two-person play, that the main thrust will be a cause-and-effect relationship between the man seeking to ease his pain and the man who puts people that no longer feel pain into the earth. That expectation will surely preoccupy you. Instead, allow Athol Fugard, one of the world’s master playwrights, to take you through a poetic, haunting and beautiful journey into the world of one man’s inconsolable grief.

We are a privileged city to have such an esteemed director (Stephen Sachs) and playwright offer the U.S. premiere of The Train Driver (Fugard directed a production in South Africa earlier this year). You would be foolish to miss the magic that comes from such lyrical dialogue; Fugard’s words reach your soul, reminding us that the human language, when constructed with such elegance, can achieve an evocative chill akin to the mournful, spiritual wailing of the dogs that howl their existence to the night.

Adolphus Ward is beguiling, even though his character, Simon, is more of a Greek chorus–a device Fugard may be using to help us focus in on Roelf’s plight. When Simon sings a lullaby from his childhood as a way of settling the ghosts wafting over the graveyard, the effect is mesmerizing; the theatre becomes populated with spirits, adding a dimension not found in Fugard’s description of the graveyard as “an image of desolate finality.”

Morlan Higgins is wrenching and his dialect superb. This is beyond mere acting; Higgins is possessed by Fugard’s creation; it is an inhabitation that allows us not just to watch his grief, but to call forth our own. For who are we to judge Roelf’s inability to shake his grief? What makes this play so powerful is that we get to witness, via Fugard’s graceful lines, a man’s harrowing journey through the graveyard of his soul. Dealing with grief means giving up on what we once believed; Fugard is writing what he knows, thereby dealing with his own grief involving apartheid. And therein lies the miracle: we are not exasperated with Roelf – we empathize with him, for, as Shakespeare said, “Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.”

photos by Ed Krieger

The Train Driver
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. in Hollywood
ends on December 12, 2010
for tickets, call (323) 663-1525 or visit Fountain

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