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The Train Driver — Lantern Theater

LanternTheaterCompany_TheTrainDriver_03 Peter DeLaurier is giving a comprehensive master class in acting with the superb set of performances he’s contributed this season, but knowing Peter, he would take his varied magnificent portrayals in stride as just being the expected work of a conscientious veteran artist.

In both Lantern’s “Emma” and People’s Light’s “Ghosts,” DeLaurier blessed his characters with reality and humanity while doing a stylized comic turn that is the hallmark of fine acting. In both productions, his characters stood out for how true to Austen and Ibsen they were, always moving the plot along or illustrating a circumstance or situation, while remaining solidly and craftily entertaining. DeLaurier is a treasure who rates the appreciation and esteem of all who have the luck to see him perform.

As Mr. Woodhouse in “Emma,” DeLaurier displayed doddering grumpiness while also conveying a sense of humor and the love his character had for his daughter and Regency, or even Georgian, tradition. He was simultaneously warm and crotchety, doing a bit while remaining authentic. As the scoundrel, Engstrand, in “Ghosts,” DeLaurier lent a rascally charm to the blackguard who swears to reform but always takes the wrong path. He showed Engstrand trying to please, knowing all the while the character was just behaving for the folks who would judge him more than honestly striving for responsibility or, worse, respectability.  Skillful, cunning, admirable work.

In “The Train Driver,” an Athol Fugard work receiving its local premiere at Lantern, DeLaurier transcends his remarkable performances of earlier this season, with an essay on humanity as embodied in one passionate, determined man who will, against all odds, bring dignity to a patch of the world sorely lacking in it and make sure the right thing is done to preserve the memory of a woman he has inadvertently killed.

For this towering performance, DeLaurier must shed the charm and wiliness he brought to Woodhouse and Engstrom. Roelf Visagie is of rawer stock. He may be of the same class of Engstrom, a simple worker, but he has none of his refinement, pseudo-sophistication, or duplicity. He is a train driver, plain and unadorned. He makes an honest, steady living and is content to reside in his white neighborhood in current, post-Apartheid South Africa with his wife, Lorraine, and their children for company. Roelf has no airs and no soft edges. The man is as direct and straightforward as you can get. He is also about as far away from the soft-spoken, erudite, artistic Peter DeLaurier as one can get. To play Roelf, DeLaurier must scatter all traces of his real, everyday self to the bloody winds.

And he does. DeLaurier’s Roelf Visagie is more than a portrayal. It is a transformation into a man with a sincere mission who will at all costs fulfill the job he’s set for himself before he can return to the comfortable life he’s forged with Lorraine.

When we meet Roelf, he has caught the attention of a grave digger, Simon, played with depth by Kirk Wendell Brown.

Simon is worried about Roelf because he knows it is dangerous, more than 20 years after South Africa’s liberation from Apartheid, for an unfamiliar middle class white man to be poking on his own around the black areas where Simon lives and scrapes out a meager but sustaining existence digging graves for people with no names, people who have no family or identity and are relegated to a Potter’s Field. The graves of these nameless are unmarked. To keep from digging in the same plot twice, Simon places refuse that lands on the graveyard site — hubcaps, industrial spindles, household items, and other detritus — to serve as headstones of sort. To help protect Roelf, whose name, like those he inters, Simon doesn’t know, he invites him to share his makeshift shelter, cobbled in Lance Kniskern’s set from sheets of corrugated metal and with only a floor for Roelf to rest his head, and, if he can, his mind.

Among Simon’s chief concerns is Roelf coming across roving gangs of feral boys who attack anyone, black or white, blindly and violently, rendering them fit only for Simon’s services, knives being their weapon of choice.

Roelf is undaunted by Simon’s fears or warnings. He is a man on a mission he regards as compulsory and urgent, something on which his future contentment depends. He has amends to make, to his conscience and to a woman for whom he has no responsibility but for whom he has tremendous sympathy and pity. In the course of doing his job, driving a commuter train in the city nearest the graveyard, Roelf has run over this woman carrying an infant, both of whom die in the accident.

Except it wasn’t an accident. For all Roelf can tell, it was a suicide. The woman, with the child in her arms, jumped in front of his train when he would have no prayer of stopping in time to avoid hitting her and killing her. Whatever despair the woman was going through, Roelf wants her to have dignity in death she may have never enjoyed in life. Upon finding out her body was never claimed from the coroner’s, and therefore given to an agent to bury in Simon’s graveyard for the anonymous, he is compulsive about wanting to find her interred corpse and give the woman and her baby a proper and decent resting place with a tombstone to commemorate their existence, sad though it may have been, on Earth.

In the 1971 movie, Renee Taylor, playing a character named Pandora Gold, asks Joseph Bologna, monickered Giggy Panimba, “If a person runs in front of your car, and you kill him, who is the victim?”

In “The Train Driver,” Athol Fugard asks the same question but provides many more answers than Pandora gets from her rhetorical query.

While Roelf’s obsessive search for the suicide’s remains dominates Fugard’s play, the writer whose works for the last 50 years have put a face on South African life, pre- and post-Apartheid, presents a look at what is happening in his country today. Black and white are still separate, perhaps not officially so, perhaps not de jura, but certainly, according to Fugard, de facto. Whites, “The Train Driver” says, live in neat homes in manicured neighborhoods. Many blacks still live in areas that are tantamount to the districts they were forced to inhabit during Apartheid. Enmity continues to rage between the races, and a white man in the ghetto where Simon resides is fodder for scorn and the attention of the marauding gangs of murderous boys.

“The Train Driver” gives you a sense that for the advances Nelson Mandela made after peacefully succeeding F.W. de Klerk to South Africa’s presidency and ending years of segregation and institutionalized bigotry, little has changed much for Simon or many denizens of the district where he lives.

Meanwhile, Roelf Visagie is a victim of fate and his own conscience. He considers the woman who was killed a victim of lost identity who is entitled to post-life obsequies and decent burial if only because her existence was so shabby she saw no recourse for her or her baby but to die.

While Fugard’s play exposes conditions that may not be as rosy as many believe regarding South Africa — The impression in the 1994 change of power brought presto-change-o social normality to the country. — it can seem numbingly repetitive because Fugard has Roelf explain his purpose, stubbornness, and recriminations regarding the dead woman over and over again while Simon makes some benign comments or explains why he can’t help Roelf find the right grave, e.g. he receives the corpses in unmarked sealed bags and doesn’t know whom he’s burying, or why Roelf should not stay long in the area of the graveyard.

DeLaurier saves the day and Matt Pfeiffer’s production for Lantern. If it wasn’t for him, Fugard’s revelations about modern South Africa may have gone for naught, and “The Train Driver,” for all the interesting points it raises, could have descended to becoming a crushing bore.

DeLaurier intensifies Roelf’s story, Roelf’s designs and wishes, each time he relates his reason for being so intent on finding the woman’s grave and re-interring her in less anonymous ground. The obsession Roelf has as a person is reflected in DeLaurier’s very being. From his hair to his fingertips, from his firm jaw to the tips of his toes, Roelf fervently wants the suicide’s death to be more stately and gentle than her life. He is physically and morally invested, and DeLaurier makes that abundantly clear and moving.

Using an excellent South African accent and exuding the simple, sincere honesty of a working man, DeLaurier makes you care about his mission and the woman for whom he in impelled to carry it out. He also want, with all of your might, for him to find the discarded body and do the right thing in terms of burial. Roelf’s basic goodness and nobility of purpose is contagious. De Laurier makes it so.

DeLaurier musters the depth and intensity that Mark Rylance displayed in his Tony-winning performance in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.” Pain and angst are conveyed as well as the love Roelf has for Lorraine and the life to which he is not sure he can return. He tells Simon he doesn’t know what his family thinks of it or whether he continues to have a job.

DeLaurier is always tensely animated, a man wound up in the horror of a woman and child being disposed of as if they were trash and as tightly coiled by the frustration of a system that can just lose a human being and keep no record of who she was or the exact spot that will be her resting place. He is beyond distraught that authorities make it so difficult to do an honorable act.

More than guilt motivates Roelf. He is racked by the injustice of the situation, the pennyweight of regard assigned to two humans’ existence and passing.

You can almost see every nerve in DeLaurier’s taut, contracted body. Each vein in the actor’s neck is visible. DeLaurier’s is not a simple performance. It is a study of a man who will spend all he has physically and emotionally to correct a wrong for which he is not responsible but which affects him to the quick.

DeLaurier’s acting is extraordinary for how passionate it is while keeping Roelf authentic and within the range of humankind. He gives “The Train Driver” variety and weight without which it would sputter into repetitive cant.

Kirk Wendell Brown is also quite fine as the patient, yet agitated Simon who depends on his odious job for his meager living and who understands and even commiserates with Roelf but wants him gone from his shack and his graveyard for reasons that have more to do with man’s inhumanity towards man than disliking Roelf’s companionship or endless talk about finding the woman he killed and rectifying the unconscionable treatment she received following her death. Brown is the picture of subtlety and plain speaking.

In Matt Pfeiffer’s production, DeLaurier literally sheds layers as “The Train Driver” goes one. When we meet Roelf, he is wearing a jacket, a shirt, and all kinds of garments. As Fugard’ s play progresses, he is in a dust-stained undershirt and tattered pants, as if his quest strips him of all he was before he undertook it. Pfeiffer does a fine job pacing “The Train Driver,” but he is helped immensely by DeLaurier’s outstanding work that demands you pay attention even as he repeats his story (as no doubt DeLaurier was helped by Pfeiffer’s direction).

The graveyard, strewn with castoff material looks authentic and formidable thanks to Lance Kniskern’s useful design. The appointments in Simon’s shack also look natural. Knowing where to supply the sweat and mud stains are the key to Katherine Fritz’s appropriate costumes. Mara Burkholder did a wonderful job as dialect coach.

“The Train Driver” runs through Sunday, May 4 at Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets (adjacent to St. Stephen’s Church), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $20  and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or going online to www.lanterntheater.org.  Rush tickets are available 10 minutes before any performance.

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