By RUTH ROVNER
For 21st Century Media
For the final play of its 20th anniversary season, the Lantern Theater Company is presenting the Philadelphia premiere of “The Train Driver,” a play by South Africa’s renowned playwright, Athol Fugard.
The Lantern has presented three plays by Fugard, who won the 2011 Tony award for Lifetime Achievement.
“The Train Driver,” which continues through May 4, is one of Fugard’s newest plays. “It’s an absolutely extraordinary play — one of his best,” said actor Peter DeLaurier of Malvern, who has the leading role of Roelf.
“The pain that Roelf carries in this play is as great as that of any character I’ve played in recent years,” he said.
His character is tortured by the memory of a fatal accident he could not prevent. A woman and her baby suddenly stepped in front of the train tracks and both were instantly killed. The play is based on a true story.
Roelf is consumed with anguish, anger and guilt. “He doesn’t have the philosophic tools that could help him understand and deal with this horrendous situation, ” said DeLaurier.
The play focuses on Roelf’s encounter with Simon, a stranger who prompts Roelf’s confessional and can somehow offer forgiveness to free him from his torment.
As DeLaurier explained, the play is also about anti-apartheid South Africa. Roelf is a white South African and the train victim is a black woman who lived in poverty and despair. Simon, too, is black.
“The play is a kind of metaphor for the life of white South Africans in a post-apartheid world,” said DeLaurier. They must come to grips with the reality that in some ways, they are responsible for the horrible conditions of the poverty stricken blacks in their country.”
DeLaurier began preparing for this role long before rehearsals began. Starting in the fall, he did extensive research on Fugard, reading his journals and essays about him and interviews he’d given. “I was eager to understand his mind set,” he said.
Then he set about to learn the script. It was a considerable challenge, even for a veteran actor like this, because it’s a huge role with extensive monologues.
“To do this role justice, I felt I needed to master the text in advance, ” he says.
So he set about to commit his entire role to memory before rehearsals began. Adding to the challenge, his character speaks in Afrikaans, the dialect spoken by white South Africans of Dutch descent.
“It’s a difficult dialect,” he says. “And I wanted to practice my lines with the Afrikaans accent.”
His theater colleague, Aaron Cromie, introduced him to a student from South Africa. She read his lines with an Afrikaans accent, speaking into a recording device. “It was incredibly useful,” said DeLaurier.
“For the next month and a half, every day I’d listen to her while following the script and speaking it out loud,” he describes. “I memorized the text by reading out loud until I could go through the whole play without looking at the script.”
So he was well prepared when rehearsals began. They were led by director Matt Pfeiffer. “We’ve known each other for years, but this is the first time I’ve worked with him as a director,” says DeLaurier.
Like DeLaurier, Pfeiffer is both an actor and director.
“It’s a pleasure working with another actor/director. He’s smart and clear and passionate about the action of this play.”
The other actor in this two-character play is Kirk Wendell Brown, an actor and theater arts instructor for 20 years. He plays Simon, the poor black who is caretaker of a graveyard where Roelf encounters him.
“He’s doing an absolutely beautiful job,” said DeLaurier of the actor, noting that Brown’s performance is even more impressive because he was cast in the role only a few days before the first rehearsal.
The actor who was originally cast had an unexpected injury just two days before rehearsals began. So Brown stepped into the role of Simon with no time to prepare in advance for rehearsals.
So his challenge was mastering his role quickly. And DeLaurier’s challenge is portraying a character consumed with pain and guilt.
“I tried to understand the circumstances in which he’s caught and to make real his world and what he confronts,” says DeLaurier. “So much of it he perceives to be unfair. And his reaction is grief, confusion, anger.”
Then DeLaurier adds a personal note. “To be frank, these are feelings very familiar to me this year,” he says. He’s referring to the death of his wife of 41 years, Ceal Phelan, who died of cancer in February of 2013 at age 63.
Like her husband, she was an award-winning actress. Indeed, later in 2013, Phelan was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, which DeLaurier accepted on her behalf.
Now, because of his own experience with grief, DeLaurier is better able to understand the emotions of Roelf in “The Train Driver.” even though the situations are also very different.
Besides the challenge of portraying intense emotions, there’s also the stamina required for a 90-minute play with no intermission. “We never leave the stage, although there are some pauses between scenes when we have a moment to breathe,” says DeLaurier.
But whatever the challenges, this veteran actor can handle them.
His career in theater spans four decades. He’s been a member of People’s Light & Theater Company since l981, and has had both acting and directing roles.
He’s also a playwright who has published three plays. One of them, “Anne of the Green Gables,” won a Barrymore nomination.
DeLaurier and his late wife also co-founded the Delaware Theater Company in l978.
The award-winning actor has won two Barrymores, one in 2004 for his role in the Lantern’s “Underneath the Lintel” and another in 2012 as best supporting actor for his role in the People’s Light & Theater Company’s production of “King Lear.”
At the Lantern, “Underneath the Lintel” was one of six productions in which he’s had roles. He’s also directed three Lantern plays, including its 2012 production of “The Island,” a Fugard play.
“The Lantern is an artist- and actor-centered theater company,” he says. “I’m always honored to be part of its artistic process.”
He’s especially grateful to have this major role in “The Train Driver.” “Some roles you play and it feels like work,” he said. “And then you get one of these roles that — however difficult — is a joy. I go to work every day thinking, Wow! I get to play this role and it’s such a privilege.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Lantern Theater Company’s production of “The Train Driver”
WHEN: Continues through May 4.
WHERE: The Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets, Philadelphia.
TICKETS: Call (215) 829-0395 or check www.lanterntheater.org.
CONNECT: On Twitter @LanternTheater