Athol Fugard’s “The Train Driver” never pulls into the station. The South African master, who has concocted so many sizzling two-handers on the subjects of apartheid and its aftermath, chooses to let a potentially fascinating confrontation dribble away as one character stands in virtually mute witness to the other’s long, slow self-pitying dirge. As an allegory for a tortured past, it’s pretty obvious; and as a theatrical experience, pretty inert in this Fountain Theater U.S. premiere.
Appearing in an arid potter’s field, where scores of unclaimed, nameless dead are uneasily interred, is Roelf (Morlan Higgins), the eponymous engineer obsessed with the memory of a black woman in a red headscarf who stepped into his locomotive’s path, her baby on her back. His guilt, we quickly recognize, is that of his country, and the dead mother and child are representative of the hundreds of thousands , perhaps millions of anonymous Africans swallowed up over centuries in history’s flood.
Determined to locate the victims’ resting place, he browbeats and reviles gravedigger Simon (Adolphus Ward), who by rights ought to run the white man off with a shovel. But because this is a Fugardian allegory, Simon offers shelter and a sympathetic ear — not that he could ever get a word in edgewise through Roelf’s endless monologues about that night on the tracks, his subsequent haunting and the inevitable reckoning with God.
The thesps, Fountain mainstays, are seen at less than their best here under Stephen Sachs’ funereal direction. Higgins’ perspiring fever at rise leaves him nowhere to go emotionally, while Ward puts Simon into an unvarying stupor of incomprehension. Neither takes much advantage of opportunities for edge or humor, and neither seems at all altered through his intercourse with the other.
Ken Booth’s lighting and Jeff McLaughlin’s set certainly convey an airless stopover on the road to nowhere, though the much-spoken-of threats from feral animals and youths aren’t made especially palpable, and the pieces of wood off to the side belie the textual references to its all having been stolen for kindling.