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In Tandem and Milwaukee Chamber Theater offer two very different takes on death and mourning.

When you see it on stage, grief is usually swift and explosive. Think of Lear’s howl over the body of Cordelia, or Lady Anne’s take down of Richard III as she sits shiva with her father-in-law. But the best theater is often a matter of life or death—and the slow burn of recognition that happens when one encounters the other is potent with dramatic potential. Two plays that opened this weekend have compelling—but very different—takes on the grieving process.

Rage, not mourning is the first emotion on display in Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver—receiving its Midwest premiere by Milwaukee Chamber Theater. Roelf Visagie (played with brazen energy by David Daniel) arrives at a makeshift graveyard searching for the remains of a mother and infant child. He comes not to mourn them, but to curse them.

They were killed at his hand, so to speak—a suicide committed when the mother stepped in front of Visagie’s speeding train. (The incident is based on a real event.) Since then, the train driver has been restless and tormented, his life on the brink of ruin. The bodies were unidentified, buried in an unmarked grave like the ones that dot the stage’s bleak landscape. He comes to the graveyard to seek them out, and find…well, something: Vengeance? Closure? Expiation?

The place for “the nameless ones” is overseen by Simon, a black South African who lives in a shack, waiting for the anonymous bodies to be delivered, along with the meager fee he receives for seeing to the burial. He marks them with a few stones and with pieces of junk: a hubcap, a broken pitcher. It’s as bleak and haunting vision of the “afterlife” as Beckett’s crossroads (the evocative set is by Lisa Schlenker, beautifully lit by Steven Roy White).

Simon, played with an almost otherworldly stillness by Michael C. Torrey, speaks little, but offers an audience to Roelf as he describes his situation. It’s a talking cure of sorts. As Roelf unloads his guilt—and soaks in the desolation of Simon’s blighted world—he comes away with a new understanding of his life and his country.

Fugard—as he frequently does—is writing in miniature, but thinking big. The characters here are both vividly human and richly allegorical. And director C. Michael Wright—a champion of Fugard—brings out the play’s deep, almost mythical resonances. Daniel’s charged, restless “driver” eventually finds peace of sorts through a blend of compassion and communion with Simon. But that peace is brief, as the legacy of Apartheid returns in a quiet but harrowing conclusion that shows Fugard’s optimism about the future to be tempered with the grim realities of the 21st century.


 

Tiffany Vance (Erin) and Sara Zientek (Sky) in In Tandem Theatre's "Come Back." Photo by Ross Zentner.

Tiffany Vance (Erin) and Sara Zientek (Sky) in In Tandem Theatre’s “Come Back.” Photo by Ross Zentner.

Neil Haven’s Come Back takes its title from the anguished cry of Sky (Sara Zientek), who screams the words to the heavens, struggling with the loss of her best friend, Erin. Immediately, the cry is taken up by Erin’s parrot, now the charge of Sky, and that moment is a perfect example of Haven’s high wire walk of absurd comedy and serious drama. In Tandem Theater opened the world-premiere production this weekend.

Sky is on a mandated road trip of sorts. In order to recover a sizable sum from Erin’s will, she has to drive around the country, exploring various ways to dispose of her ashes via alternative mortuaries, which offer to compress them into jewelry or set them floating in a snow globe (Karen Estrada and Tim Higgins play the wacky proprietors, along with several bit parts). Erin’s ulterior motive, as we come to understand, is to help Sky recover from the cloistered life she has lived as her caretaker.

Free-spirited Erin is a tough act to follow (perhaps to emphasize her life force, Haven kills her with a one-two punch: a paralyzing hang-gliding accident, then a long struggle with a rare form of cancer). But Sky and Erin’s flashback scenes are among the most touching of the play. Tiffany Vance (as Erin) and Zientek have a lovely rapport, embodying the easy gentleness of friends who are true soulmates.

The drama heightens as Erin’s mother, Val (Carrie Hitchcock), joins Sky on her trip, insisting that her daughter be buried in the family plot. What follows is a black-and-white conflict between cold family tradition and warm iconoclasm, and Sky’s friend, Mel (T. Stacy Hicks sporting a full head of Rasta-man dreads), is there to cheer on Sky’s fledgling bohemian spirit.

And that spirit thrives, casting off the evil mother (Hitchcock does a nice job of humanizing Val despite Haven’s one-note characterization) and finding an appropriate final resting place for Erin’s ashes and soul.

It’s a sweetly touching denouement, nicely orchestrated by director Jane Flieller, Aimee Hanyzewski (lighting design) and Rick Rasmussen (set design). Come Back is a wild ride, but it ends with the kind of simple grace that stays with you, even after the absurdity and one-liners have faded.

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