NEW HAVEN REGISTER FEATURE ON THE TRAIN DRIVER – Long Wharf Theatre
Sunday, October 24, 2010
By Donna Doherty, Register Arts Editor
NEW HAVEN — Forgiveness is a powerful palliative, perhaps a necessary stride toward redemption. Can a man who accidentally kills a suicidal woman and her child find that redemption if he finds her burial ground and puts a name to the one-second glance he had of her face? Does knowing she has a proper resting place and may finally be at peace, give him the same peace?
“The Train Driver,” South African playwright Athol Fugard’s latest work, explores the questions of guilt, redemption and the complications of the human heart in a play based on a true story, opening Wednesday through Nov. 21 at Long Wharf Theatre.
In his third production here in a row, the acclaimed playwright continues to strengthen the professional bond and friendship between himself and Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who is directing this East Coast premiere of the work. It premiered early this year at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town and comes to LWT from its U.S. premiere at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre.
Fugard, chatting in the penthouse lounge of The Study at Yale hotel on a recent visit, hesitates not a second when asked if he is or identifies with Roelf Visagie (played by Tony Award nominee Harry Groener), the titular character.
“Yes. He was a man, white, a fisherman, all of which I could identify with enough, unlike the woman,” he says, as he starts to tell the genesis of what he has called his most important work.
As the conversation stretches, he reveals that the plot structure was a conundrum.
The story is one that Fugard had been carrying around in one of his ideas notebooks for years. In December 2000, The Mail and Guardian in South Africa reported the death of one Pumla Lolwana, who, holding her three children close to her, stepped onto a railroad track near the Port Elizabeth squatters’ camp where they lived.
“I was devastated,” said Fugard. “Somehow that woman and that dark, unfathomable act was such a symbol of the desperate hopelessness and poverty that to this day blemishes the landscape of the ‘new’ South Africa.”
Fugard has always tried to be the voice of those who have none. His works have been the public flaying for his country’s apartheid policy: Last season, his “Have You Seen Us?” at Long Wharf was his first play set in his adopted country of America, which, as he pointed out, has its own problems of prejudice. “The Train Driver” is his way of saying that there are still problems which need his attention.
He calls it his responsibility as a playwright. Or, as he puts it, “an appointment I’ve got to keep.”
While he didn’t know what he was going to do with the story, he set it aside in a special notebook which he started for it.
“I tried for the first time to keep an appointment with that. Two years later on my 70th birthday sitting in sunny California (he lives in San Diego), feeling very good about myself, I knew it was time to deal with Pumla Lolwana.”
But it was not to happen. After several months of writing, he realized even his writer’s imagination could not conjure up the trip to the dark abyss she’d traveled.
It’s Fugard talking when the character Roelf says at one point, “I don’t know what it is like to live without hope … I’m thinking about it all the time now, trying to imagine what it was like for you.”
Fugard says, “What she’d done was alien to me. I also felt a sense of sacrilege in a way — for me to sit there and play games with that mother was just wrong. It was a mother with children. My daughter had just given me my first grandson, Gavin.
“For all sorts of reasons, the thought that a woman could be so alone in this world that there was no one to stop her, love her, help her … To this day, I remain devastated.”
Athol (who calls himself “a tentative Buddhist”) was stumped and closed the notebook with a description of his visit to a California abatu, or monastery, in an avocado plantation to mourn the loss.
But he found himself hearing the words from the article: “By Monday night nobody had claimed the bodies.”
“So I claimed her, and said she’s mine,” he says.
But several more years went by before he “kept his appointment.”
His eureka moment came when he realized that instead of feeling guilty about not being able to inhabit her spirit enough to convey her desolation, he needed to find another entry point.
“Instead of living through Pumla Lolwana, there was the train driver, the man that had been behind the controls of the monster that, to quote the newspaper, pulverized her.”
It was Gordon Edelstein, he says, who showed him that the play on one level was about human mortality. “I stepped back and realized he was right.”
Edelstein also gave a delighted Fugard an amazing gift. He had a trap built in the floor of the Mainstage especially for this play, to give full verisimilitude to he digging scene.
The character of Simon (Drama Desk Award-winning actor Anthony Chisholm), the uncooperative gravedigger whom Visagie badgers and badgers about the existence of the woman’s grave, eventually makes Visagie so frustrated and angry that he pours out his inner feelings to him. It’s a cleansing that Fugard again relates to as a South African.
It’s a sense that he’s tried to bring to the stage in vehicles such as “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead” (1972, Long Wharf Theatre), “A Lesson for Aloes” (1978), “Master Harold…and the Boys” (Yale Rep, 1982), and dozens more.
He lowers his voice and says softly, trailing off at the end, “To think that in one fell swoop all evidence and consequences of a system so monstrous and evil as apartheid that shaped the country, and people like myself would be gone … ”
Fugard says, “There are so many different things you can take away from the play. I have no control over it. A lot of people have taken away thoughts and feelings that make me wish I’d never written the play!
“Some people will intensely dislike Roelf Visagie. In those first few pages that man is ugly in his outpouring toward this woman … others will take something that’s very [universal] to my writing, which is that no human being is beyond redemption.
“Some never grab the chance and go for it. You have to go for it. Roelf went for it.”
Contact Donna Doherty at 203-789-5672.
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