Ritchie Coster and Leon Addison Brown

Athol Fugard's new play, "The Train Driver," takes place in the "new" South Africa of the present day, in a desolate graveyard where the ghosts of apartheid past won't stay buried.

Athol Fugard’s new play, “The Train Driver,” takes place in the “new” South Africa of the present day, in a desolate graveyard where the ghosts of apartheid past won’t stay buried. The source of this harrowing two-hander was a news account of a desperate black mother who committed suicide by walking herself and her children into the path of a high-speed train. In Fugard’s metaphorical version — agonizingly well acted and directed with unflinching honesty by the 80-year-old scribe — a black gravedigger offers comfort to the frantic white train driver who has come in search of his victims’ grave.

Ritchie Coster gives a searing performance as Roelf Visagie, the train driver who was so traumatized by his experience that he’s walked away from his job, his home, and his family to search for the unmarked grave of the unknown woman and child who were crushed under the wheels of his train. Roelf is haunted by his indelible memory of the eye contact he made with the woman in that last moment, and it’s making him so crazy with rage, guilt, and helplessness that he’s almost incoherent — a killer of an acting assignment that Coster takes right to the edge.

Leon Addison Brown is equally amazing as Simon Hanabe, the aged gravedigger who sings to the dead when he hears them sighing, and does his best to keep feral dogs and marauding youth gangs from digging them up. Simon’s idiomatic speech patterns are pure music, and Brown delivers them in a quiet, entirely unselfconscious lyric voice.

“I see he gets tired and I feel sorry for him,” says Simon, who tells Roelf that he won’t find white corpses in this black graveyard. “But he isn’t looking for a white people. He is looking for a black one without a name. So I show him where they are sleeping, the ones without names.”

When night falls, to the howls of wild animals supplied by sound man Brett Jarvis, Simon extends that compassion by taking Roelf into the mean little shack at the edge of the graveyard where he lives in shocking poverty with little more than the rags on his back furnished by costumer Susan Hilferty. Scorched by Stephen Strawbridge’s merciless lighting, Christopher H. Barreca’s parched set of this barren ground is almost unearthly.

The strength of Simon’s character derives from the man’s consistent decency and weary pragmatism. Fugard reveals both traits with a single image, in Simon’s custom of topping up each unmarked grave with some piece of detritus (a hubcap, a coffee pot) to distinguish it from all the other unmarked graves — and to keep him from digging it up again. Although Simon’s aware of the danger to himself, this decent man can’t help himself from sheltering Roelf until he exorcises the demons in his head.

Roelf’s character comes from the other side of the moon, deepening through change. In his initial rage and guilt, all he wanted to do was curse the dead woman for cutting off both their lives — but really, for shattering his white man’s view of post-apartheid South Africa and opening his eyes to the poverty, misery, and economic inequality that still prevails.

In Simon’s calming presence, the Afrikaaner gradually experiences a kinship with the old gravedigger and, by extension, with the desperate woman whose eyes he looked into and can’t forget. He still can’t tolerate the unbearable reality that people can still die of despair, unclaimed, unmourned and unnamed. But he accepts his own part in it.

A jolting, but plausible ending snuffs out whatever whiff of sentimentality might cling to Roelf’s moral growth and transformation. Here, as always, Fugard writes from immense reserves of sympathy for his suffering fellow humans. But instead of mellowing with age, he seems to have grown another, tougher skin to keep that existential pain at bay.

The Train Driver

Signature Center; 199 seats; $25

Production

A Signature Theater presentation of a play in one act written and directed by Athol Fugard.

Creative

Set, Christopher H. Barreca; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Stephen Strawbridge; sound, Brett Jarvis; original music, Doug Wieselman; dialect coach, Barbara Rubin; production stage manager, Linda Marvel. Opened Sept. 9, 2012; reviewed Sept. 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Simon Hanabe - Leon Addison Brown
Roelf Visagie - Ritchie Coster
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