Claire Nowak

Performing Fugard’s Greatest Play?

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre stages The Train Driver, which the acclaimed South African writer calls his most important play.

By - Feb 19th, 2015 02:42 pm
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The Train Driver. Photo by John Nienhuis.

The Train Driver. Photo by John Nienhuis.

The story behind The Train Driver, the latest production from Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, is a simple one. A man named Roelf (David Daniel) accidentally kills a mother and her child with the train he drives, and though neither the police nor anyone else could identify them, he feels driven to learn who these unfortunate souls were. Overcome with his guilt, he enlists the help of the gravedigger Simon (Michael A. Torrey), who leads him to eye-opening conclusions about shame, society’s racial division and ultimately, himself.

A white South African who lived through his country’s apartheid years, playwright Athol Fugard considers this the most important play he’s ever written. He based it on a real incident in South Africa, when a woman stepped in front of a train with her three children. And though the play focus on one specific event, director C. Michael Wright says its message is relevant to the global community.

C. Michael Wright

C. Michael Wright

“I believe we all need to be reminded occasionally of our own personal prejudices and the protective walls we put up to keep the unknown at a distance,” Wright says in an email. “I think it’s crucial to keep examining how we look at, and fit into, the world around us.”

The relationship between Daniel and Torrey in real life is much like Roelf and Simon’s in the play. Though both have acted in Fugard plays before, the actors were complete strangers at the beginning of production. Yet their interactions onstage, as well as their exploration of the play’s subject matter, formed not only a closer professional relationship, but a true friendship.

“(The play) brings up feelings and situations,” Daniel says. “It’s not that we have any answers to those, but we’re both thrown into that conversation together, and I believe that that definitely creates a bond and intimacy there.”

The train driver Daniel plays is given to class assumptions and thinks he knows all about black South Africans. But the accident will radically change his view. Daniel himself grew up in Virginia, where there was no shortage on racism and classism. Knowing the near impossibility of changing someone’s firmly rooted beliefs, he finds Roelf’s audacity to do so humbling.

“What I think the incredible thing about Roelf is the amount of courage” he has, Daniel says. “He changes his heart about who these people are. He always thought that they were one way, and now he’s confronted with something else.”

Wright prefers directing projects with smaller casts; then, he and the actors can dive deeper into the characters’ personas and relationships with each other. That’s even more important with challenging works like The Train Driver, which Wright says “is a delicate dance between two men who have absolutely no idea how the other thinks or feels or lives.”

Wright previously worked with Fugard in 1982, first as the lead in Master Harold … and the Boys for two weeks on Broadway, then on the show’s national tour. During those weeks, the playwright was Wright’s mentor and guide as much as his director. The two would go out for breakfast and talk about Fugard’s life in South Africa. Though they have not kept in contact nor worked together since, Wright is still inspired by Fugard’s integrity and boldness, which he tries to highlight through his directing.

“Thanks to courageous writers like Fugard, I’ve grown up firmly believing that not only can theater have great emotional impact,” he says, “it can actually provoke change and seriously improve the quality of people’s lives.”

Opens 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 and runs through March 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Tickets range from $28.50-41.50, available online or by calling 414-291-7800.

The Brothers Size

Like MCT, Uprooted Theatre also addresses racial injustice in its upcoming production. But instead of strangers, the main characters in The Brothers Size are brothers Ogun and Oshoosi Size.

This hybrid staged reading directed by Marti Gobel takes audiences to the bayous of Louisiana. The brothers share a strong bond despite their different lifestyles; Ogun devoutly puts all of his energy into his auto-repair shop while Oshoosi, recently released from prison, cruises through life on his daydreams of moving far away. Yet their relationship is shaken by Elegba, a fellow inmate of Oshossi’s who tempts him to disregard his brother’s expectations.

Loosely based on West African mythology, The Brothers Size is part of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays” trilogy. Uprooted Theatre presented another play from the collection, In the Red and Brown Water, earlier this season in collaboration with the Marquette University Theater Department.

There will be a talkback session after Monday’s performance.

7 p.m. Feb. 23 at Next Act Theatre. Tickets cost $12 ($7 for seniors and students), available online.

Mama Mia!

Here we go again. The hit musical is back on tour and stopping in Milwaukee for five performances this weekend. Join bride-to-be Sophie as she tries to figure out which of her mom Donna’s three lovers is her father, so he can walk her down the aisle—all to the tune of ABBA’s greatest hits. Take a chance on this show; you’ll be thanking the cast for the music by the end.

Opens 8 p.m. Feb. 20 and runs through Feb. 22 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $30-90, available online or by calling 414-273-7206.

0 thoughts on “Theater: Performing Fugard’s Greatest Play?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I can’t wait to see both The Brothers Size and Night Train this week (they’re in my date book)!

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