Quite a ride

The Train Driver

You know it’s a serious play when it’s set in a graveyard.

You know it’s a serious play when it’s set in a graveyard.

Photo courtesy of Celebration Arts

The Train Driver, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; $8-$15. Celebration Arts Theatre, 4469 D Street; (916) 455-2787; www.celebrationarts.net. Through April 13.
Rated 5.0

Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver is a powerful play that explores white guilt and the legacies of South African apartheid through the traumatic consequences of one black woman’s act of hopelessness on one white man’s psychological well-being. Inspired by an actual event which was even more disturbing, and written with compassion and understanding, The Train Driver is nevertheless devastating.

It is a two-man, one-act play that runs about 90 minutes, condensing much yet repeating much in a way that doesn’t always best serve the story. But the intensity of the performances, and the full investment of the actors in their personas elevates the experience.

Roelf (Chris Lamb) is the train driver of the title, who is traumatized when his locomotive strikes a black woman carrying a baby when she steps in front of the oncoming train, intent on dying. Their eyes lock just before her body is sucked beneath the wheels of his train. He is haunted by her look, as well as by his helplessness in the situation. Now, “severely traumatized” and near to madness, he has left his wife and children to find the woman’s grave site and curse his dead tormentor.

Enter Simon (James Wheatley, who also directs) who tends the graveyard for “the nameless ones,” the unclaimed and unidentified. Simon is an old black man, maybe a little muddled, and unable to pick out the grave of a recently buried mother and child. Roelf threatens to dig up every grave until he finds it, touching off a days-long dialogue-cum-therapy session, during which Roelf comes to understand the woman in a way that makes her less a tormentor and almost a friend. As he begins to mend, the insanity of real life steps in to throw a curve.