(Los Angeles, CA) October 17, 2010 â€“ Well-renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard knows a thing or two about relationships, not only in terms of their importance for the spiritual evolution of the human condition, but also for their complexities which oftentimes prevent or delay that evolution. From a cultural standpoint, Fugardâ€™s plays dealing with Apartheid reveal all the intricate facets of the relationships between the African native inhabitants and the Caucasian Afrikaners, such as his critically acclaimed Blood Knot, Master Harold and the Boys, and the Academy Award winning film Tsotsi (which was based on his novel).
In terms of personal relationships, Fugard has maintained a special bond with the L.A. based Fountain Theatre. Ever since the L.A. premiere of his 2000 classic The Road to Mecca, Fugard was so impressed with the production that he offered the company world premiere rights to his new works, which have included the L.A. Drama Critics and Ovation Award winning Exits and Entrances (2004), Victory (2008), and Coming Home (2009). This year, Athol Fugardâ€™s U.S. premiere of THE TRAIN DRIVER is a true testament of how a talented playwright and theatre company can come together to create a story about race, rage, and redemption.
Itâ€™s January, 2001, on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Gravedigger and caretaker Simon (Aldolphus Ward) strolls through the barren landscape of the Shukuma Graveyard, where hundreds of nameless burial mounds litter the cracked terrain like swollen welts on a weathered face (courtesy of a spectacular set design by Jeff McLaughlin). The only signs or markers for the graves are various pieces of junk that wonâ€™t get stolen by the tsotsi (scavenging hoodlums). After he finishes his inspection of the surrounding lands, Simon then speaks to the audience, providing the introduction to the story of how he met a South Afrikaner train driver named Roelf (Morlan Higgins), who storms onto the graveyard in a fit of boiling anger and desperation looking for a specific graveâ€¦a grave containing the bodies of an African mother and her baby. As Simon quietly watches the visitor, he soon discovers that the deceased mother, while holding her baby in her arms, committed suicide by standing in front of Roelfâ€™s oncoming train, which results in him being consumed by his own guilt and his doubt in Godâ€™s existence.
Although there is natural tension between the two men, Roelf is not a racist. He barks and insults Simon in stunned horror that the graves of his fellow Africans donâ€™t have decent or sacred ornaments in their honor. And this exchange between the two men really stands out in Fugardâ€™s writing. This subtle layering of his characters creates empathy and compassion for them. And the fluid direction by Stephen Sachs is absolutely flawless. But it is the acting by the playâ€™s two stars that provide the creative catalyst. As he wonderfully accomplished in last yearâ€™s Shining City, Morlan Higgins drives the storyâ€™s momentum with his naturalistic, story-telling abilities. He has monologue after monologue. Both Roelf and his character from Shining City exude huge amounts of guilt. However, Roelf is also filled with violent rage, bringing the man to a constant state of tear-filled despair. In the beginning of the play, Roelfâ€™s sole mission in finding the nameless grave was to personally curse the woman for being the source of his misery. But this soon transforms into feelings of kindness and understanding for the mother, her son, her entire culture. And Higgins masterfully reveals this emotional and spiritual journey one thin layer at a time.
Equally moving is Wardâ€™s Simon, who serves as both guardian of the deceased and healer of Roelfâ€™s soul. Throughout the train driverâ€™s stories, Ward sits and listens to the tormented man with a type of focused intensity that draws the audience into the action even more. The gravediggerâ€™s silence speaks as many volumes as Higginsâ€™s monologues, and the older manâ€™s charm, grace, and wisdom conveys an aura of perfect harmony, especially in one scene where he sings to the ghosts of the nameless dead, calming their souls as evening approaches. Ward is a perfect match for his co-star as both characters come to respect each other in terms of their respective pasts, pains, and their cultural diversities, proving once again that Fugard was indeed correct when he stated that The Train Driver is â€śthe most important play Iâ€™ve ever written,â€ť not only for himself, but also for the audiences who continue to be in awe of his work as time goes on.
The Train Driver opened October 16 (Saturday night) and runs to December 12
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles CA 90029
(Fountain at Normandie)
(323) 663-1525 or http://www.fountaintheatre.com/
Opening Night: $35.00
All other performances: $25 (Thursdays and Fridays) & $30 (Saturdays and Sundays)
Seniors over 62 (Thursdays and Sundays only): $23.00
Students (with ID): $18.00
Secure, on-site parking: $5.00
Photos by: Ed Krieger