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THE TRAIN DRIVER & the Phantom of Guilt

Critically acclaimed playwright, actor, and director Athol Fugard brings what he calls his most personal play to The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.  Best known for plays such as “Master Harold… and the Boys” and “The Road to Mecca,” his book “Tsotsi” was adapted for the screen winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. 

Continuing his journey into the emotional depths of South Africa, Fugard now brings us a two person play that throws together a grave digger and a white South African train driver in a story about guilt and redemption. 

Simon Hanabe (Adoplphus Ward) is a grave digger who buries the nameless dead in a squatter camp on the outskirts of Motherwell, South Africa.  His is a solitary life, spending his days in the scorching heat, digging holes in the ground and burying men, women, and children he never sees and doesn’t know.  Having no names, he buries them in graves marked only by the rusty car parts he places on their sites so he knows not to bury anyone else in their spot. 

One hot day Roelf Visagie (Morlan Higgins) arrives asking Simon if he recently buried a woman and her baby.  Simon is unsure as he doesn’t “look in the bags” of the bodies he buries.  But Roelf is obsessed with finding out.  At first he says he wants to spit on her grave and yell at the dead woman, but as we learn the truth, we discover he needs her forgiveness… and to understand.   

You see, the woman had stepped onto train tracks, holding her baby in a sack behind her back, and was pulverized when the train Roelf was driving struck them.  While it is clear he had no time to stop the train, the fact that it occurred, and the fact that the woman looked into his eyes right before she was killed, haunts him.  As a result he wants answers… forgiveness… and a way to comprehend what occurred. 

It is his meeting Simon where those needs will be met, but in ways he didn’t expect. 

Perfectly acted by Higgins and Ward, The Train Driver is an intense, and at times, difficult play.  The South African accents are sometimes a struggle to understand and the subject matter is eternally heavy, even when the dialogue attempts to lighten the mood – however briefly. 

That said, it’s an interesting character study and the end… while seemingly cut and dry, really leaves the audience to decide what happened in a more ethereal sense.  The affect the men had on each other results in an interesting dynamic that changes both of them.

The Fountain Theatre is a very small space that can seem a bit claustrophobic but also gives the play an immediacy it might not have in a bigger venue.  The set itself is covered in sand and rusty auto parts with a portion of a squatters hut used beautifully on one side of the stage. Sound is brought in effectively as is the subtle changes in lighting that not only evoke time of day, but mood.  Overall, it’s a beautifully realized play, but might be too challenging for some. 

What’s fascinating about the play is the topic of guilt.  Guilt can be an overriding emotion in many people causing us to make decisions and choices that might not be in our best interests, simply because we can’t get over our own actions.  But sometimes, like Roelfe, those actions aren’t even something we had a choice in. 

Another aspect of the play that hits close to home is the pattern we have of turning a blind eye to the realities of the world around us.  (Which can also cause guilt.)  For me, there are so many injustices and travesties in the world that it’s hard to decide what to focus on.   

Doesn’t it seem like every month, some person, either at work or in your family, is asking for money for some charity they feel is worthwhile?  Breast cancer, AIDS, Autism, and the fight to save some poor school’s theatre program are all valid and worthy causes, but it’s not always possible to give to each one.  Then we decide to choose just one so that we can really make a good contribution, yet the guilt we have when we say “no” to the other charities just makes the whole thing go down hard.   

I know that since my nephew has Cystic Fibrosis, I choose to focus my attention on that charity, yet my sister had cancer and being in the gay community, I want to also focus some energy on AIDS education and research.  Then, of course, there’s the need to educate and support gay and lesbian youth so I feel like I should support The Trevor Project.  But then… there are only so many hours in the day.  There’s only so much money in the old bank account that I have to start to pick and choose what is more important to me. 

And then comes the guilt.   

And sadly, I have guilt about a hundred other things that this type of guilt is really just another straw on the camel’s back.  Or perhaps a monkey on mine. 

I’m one of those people that feel guilty if he doesn’t spend enough time with friends or doesn’t help his friends and family out.  If I can, I will.  Case closed.  To me, that’s what you do.  You help those that you love.  But many times I forget that I need to love myself and my helping others can be detrimental to my own well-being.   

Lately I’ve been overextending myself to the point of exhaustion.  Not only that but I pulled something in my back and have been in constant pain for the last week which not only makes me moody toward people (guilt), but also causes me to have to break plans (guilt guilt).  Then when my back is better I’ll have a list of people I have neglected and proceed to fill in every hour I have available seeing those people and doing things that I promised I would do.  And it’s not like I don’t want to see these people.  I do.  But when I run bleary-eyed from one person to the next, I wonder if the time spent is really quality when I’m running on fumes.  But if I don’t do it… you guessed it… guilt guilt guilt. 

But this guilt, while very real (and very strange) is nothing compared to guilt I feel over personal things that have occurred with my family.  Living three-thousand miles away, I haven’t been there when my mother endlessly took care of my ill sister and her two children.  I’m not there to see my nieces and nephew grow up, nor was I there when decisions were made about my sister’s failing health.   

Yes, I chose to move away years ago and the resulting tragedies that have occurred aren’t my fault.  I have to continue to live my life too, but somehow the guilt always creeps back in. 

So what do we do with the guilt?  Do we seek redemption like Roefle?  Do we try counseling to discover where the guilt comes from?  Or do we just deal with it as a fact of life? 

While my guilt is something that I need to learn to control, I guess it’s the people that feel no guilt at all that we should worry about.  Those people that treat others poorly and feel no remorse about it.  The people that become so self-involved “guilt” isn’t a word in their vocabulary.  Those are the people to fear. 

For me, I’ll deal with the guilt… and little by little I will find ways to reduce it.  To figure out what guilt is acceptable, and what guilt should be pushed away.  Because I know that if I feel some guilt, at least I know I’m human.  At least I know that I have compassion and feel some sort of responsibility toward others. 

And in that, perhaps there is my redemption.

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