By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated September 11, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT
Richard Termine

The Train Driver

type
  • Stage

Athol Fugard is a playwright who loves to travel — whether it’s via foot (Boesman and Lena), boat (The Captain’s Tiger), or even metaphor (The Road to Mecca). But never has one of his characters arrived at a more depressing destination than Roelf (RitchieCoster) does in The Train Driver, the 90-minute meditation on death, identity, and rocky race relations that’s playing Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center through Sept. 23.

The burial ground at Shukuma, a squatter camp outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa (Fugard’s home country), is more junkyard than graveyard; it’s a rocky, unkempt bit of land strewn with trash and despair, where plots are marked with rusty hubcaps and cracked coffeepots rather than flowers and headstones. It’s where they bury ”the [black] ones without the names,” explains soft-spoken gravedigger Simon (Leon Addison Brown). Roelf is alive, though his spirit has been pulverized since his train did the same — pulverized is Fugard’s all-too-vivid choice of word — to an unknown black woman with a baby on her back. He calls her Red Doek, because she wore a red head scarf, and he’s searching for her so he can…yell? Curse? Apologize? Understand? Of course, as soon as the aimless white Roelf steps into Fugard’s Sartrian world, it’s clear that not only will there be no answers, there also will be no exit.

Fugard has called The Train Driver ”the most important play” he’s ever written. And this is from a man who’s penned more than 30 dramas and is still going strong at the age of 80. ”[It] encapsulates the journey I have made myself in trying to deal with my legacy of racial prejudice.” You’ll hear some of that journey detailed in Roelf’s middle-of-the-night monologue to Red Doek, when he talks about ”this place” and ”your world” and ”our world” and ”you people.” (Fortunately, the speech comes late in the show; by then, your ears will be attuned to Coster’s initially impenetrable accent.) More affecting, however, are Fugard’s musings on hope — and the lack thereof. After a pause, Roelf tells the imaginary Red Doek, ”I don’t know what it is like to live without Hope.” Hope, incidentally, is capitalized in the script. That’s no accident, surely — for as dark and desolate as Fugard’s landscapes may be, he is not a writer who is wanting for hope. B+

(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)

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The Train Driver

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