A Window to a Playwright

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

It's tricky. I'm realizing that my reviews end up having the same arc as the plays I see. Which makes this week tough because The Train Driver starts dark and stays there.

Athol Fugard's latest work is based on a horrific true story: In December of 2000, a black woman from a Cape Town squatter's camp walked with her three children onto a train track and waited until an oncoming train ended their lives. What could push someone to such hopeless despair?

Fugard is one of the bravest and most remarkable playwrights of our time. Born in South Africa, he's devoted his work to battling the dark enigmas of his country's apartheid system. His work looks unflinchingly at colonialism and the havoc it's wreaked on both the colonized and colonizers.

Fugard, who is ostensibly the colonizer, focuses his new work not on the life of the woman on the tracks but the aftermath for the white engineer on the train. Tormented by the ghost of a woman he unwittingly killed, he chases her remains back to a cemetery. There, where unclaimed, unnamed bodies are buried in the desert sand beneath rusted car parts, the engineer -- and the playwright -- come searching for answers. The black grave digger he encounters, who you'd imagine would have been the dramatic catalyst in one of Fugard's earlier plays, serves as little more than the patient witness as this white man chases his demons.

Fugard sets the stage for a play about redemption. Or perhaps a drama about the humanity that can cut through history and politics to bond two men. He gives us neither. Frankly, he doesn't really give us a play...it's more of an allegory for white shame or a short story on the nature of hopelessness.

This train driver is separated from time. He's trapped reliving and questioning a horrible past that he can't possibly change. There's nothing he could do to stop the train. Instead, his life has stopped and rather than moving forward, he's struggling to find this woman's grave so, as he says, he can curse at her, as if cursing at the dead could change the present.

But the play, like its protagonist, lacks forward momentum. If you walk into the theater expecting redemption, it's a frustrating hour but ... if you remember the writer, the time and the history it becomes a fascinating window into the mind of an artist approaching the end of a remarkable body of work. Had The Train Driver come from the pen of a lesser writer -- a writer without a past steeped in the shame of apartheid -- it would be easily dismissible as a one act sketch.

But coming from Fugard, it's something more disturbing. Apartheid is gone but the problems remain: a black woman can find herself standing on the tracks, waiting for an oncoming train to take away her hopelessness.

The American premiere of The Train Driver plays at the Fountain Theatre through December 12.

For info on the show text the word "Curtain" to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Banner image of Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins in The Train Driver: Ed Krieger