09/10/2012 04:36 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2012

"The Train Driver" Review: Fugard's Meditation On Despair

Few of us, mercifully, ever know real despair. In The Train Driver, now playing at the Pershing Square Signature complex, Athol Fugard takes his audience to the end of the line for the truly desperate, a graveyard for the nameless dead outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

The play was inspired by a real event in 2000 in which a South African woman stepped in front of a train with her three children. Fugard's dramatization condenses that incident to a woman with a single baby on her back and focuses on the agony the driver of the train that killed them endured.

Despite counseling and the assurances that there was nothing he could have done to prevent the woman's death, Roelf Visagie has been so traumatized by the event he has suffered a severe breakdown. As the play opens, he has come to a cemetery outside a squatter's camp to find the woman's grave in order to curse her for ruining his life.

Since no one has been able to discover the woman's identity, Roelf ends up at the burial site for those without names, people whose final resting place is beneath mounds of dirt unmarked except by pieces of junk placed on top by the resident gravedigger, Simon Hanabe, so that he won't dig the same hole twice.

The only clue Roelf brings Simon to find the woman's grave is that she wore a red doek, or head cloth, and that her baby was wrapped in a gray blanket on her back. Simon has no idea which of the little mounds of earth might hold her remains. Roelf is outraged by the squalor. "I wouldn't bury my dog like this," he says.

The rest of the 90-minute play consists of Roelf administering a talking cure to himself during the course of which he manages, with some gentle prodding from Simon, to navigate a 180-degree turnaround. He no longer wants to curse the woman but to empathize with a life he cannot imagine. In a moving monologue he addresses to the dead woman, Roelf acknowledges his inadequacy. "I don't know what it's like to live without hope," he tells the victim's ghost. A surprise twist at the end only underscores how we live at the mercy of fate.

The story is a sad one, not only for the woman whose despair led her to suicide for herself and her baby, but also for Roelf, who still keeps seeing her face as his train bore down on her. But sad stories in themselves do not make gripping drama, and while there are poignant moments in The Train Driver, especially in dialogue between Roelf and Simon, the overall result is more like hearing a third-party account of an unfortunate death. One has the feeling at the end that the play might work better as a short story.

Another problem with The Train Driver for American audiences is that it is so peppered throughout with Afrikaans and native words and phrases that it is sometimes difficult to follow what is being said. For example, the phrase by which the dead woman comes to be identified - red doek - is not found in most desk dictionaries, although the Web can provide a two-line definition.

Ritchie Coster gives an energetic performance as Roelf, though his impressive Boer accent is sometimes hard to understand, especially in the opening scenes. And he often simply seems angry at what has happened rather than a man verging on actual madness, as he claims to be.

Leon Addison Brown is excellent as Simon, a simple man who chooses his few words carefully, who has seen more hardship than anyone is likely to know, and yet can still find small pleasures in life.

It is almost impossible for anyone who hasn't traveled there to imagine the circumstances in which so many still live in South Africa even after the abolition of apartheid. As Roelf says at one point, "Most white people got no idea about what it's like." Christopher H. Barreca's bleak set is probably as close as any of his audience is likely to see. A corrugated tin hut sits in the middle of what at first looks like a sea of giant anthills dotting a scrap heap of landscape. But the anthills, as is soon clear, are actually burial mounds for the nameless dead.