Athol Fugard, the celebrated South African playwright, is set to have a banner year in New York City. Signature Theater Company, which will soon open its brand-new theater complex, will devote much of its upcoming season to the prolific writer’s work. And now the Roundabout Theatre Company has produced a stellar revival of The Road to Mecca, one of Fugard’s finest plays.
Starring Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino and Jim Dale, the three-person drama examines a few hours in the lives of some wayward souls. Miss Helen (Harris) lives in the small Karoo village of New Bethesda. The year is 1974 and apartheid continues its discriminatory subjugation of the African majority. Helen lives in a world that’s very much removed from the tattered society that infects the rest of the country. She’s an artist and a widow with few friends and fewer family members. Her only trustworthy acquaintance is Elsa Barlow (Gugino), a village girl who has grown up and become a teacher 12 hours away from New Bethesda.
Elsa is in town for a quick visit, checking up on Helen’s physical and mental health. The two have a mother-daughter dynamic, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences, but more often yelling at trivial matters. Although they live apart, Helen and Elsa have never truly moved on from their earlier years in New Bethesda.
Dale plays Marius Byleveld, the local minister who is trying to persuade Helen to sell her house and move into the local senior community run by the church. The neighbors have noticed that the aging woman is not as sharp as she used to be, and they fear that an accident could occur at any moment.
Elsa immediately rebuffs Marius’ intentions, insisting that Miss Helen make her own choice about whether to sell the house.
Underneath this plot is an underlying theme of artistic expression. The reason Helen has been in such despair, and the reason she considers Marius’ proposal, is that she’s unable to create her sculptures anymore. Her pot of creativity has run dry, and she’s unable to find inspiration to complete another lengthy project. The pieces of art that line her front lawn have become reminders of her successful past, but they also cast judgmental shadows on her broken present.
The cast is uniformly excellent, especially Harris, who is an American theatrical treasure. Miss Helen is a tough part to sell on the expansive stage of the American Airlines Theatre, where The Road to Mecca continues in a limited engagement through March 4. Harris is able to play the part as a bundle of nerves and second thoughts. After having her mind slip and the continued pressures of Marius, her defenses are slowly softening.
Gugino doesn’t quite master the South African accent, but she imbues Elsa with a fiery independence. In some ways, the character feels like Miss Helen 40 years prior. Elsa is a teacher who refuses to toe the company line; she’s more interested in changing South Africa’s future and not letting the harsh reality of its present circumstances seep into a new generation. She represents a need for change, a need for self-evaluation.
Dale, also a great treasure of the theater, is deceivingly brilliant as Marius. He gives off an exterior of Christian kindness, but deep down there may be something darker percolating. As Elsa points out, he’s obviously in love with Helen, but does he understand this old woman’s needs and artistic ambitions?
Fugard’s play is well-served by director Gordon Edelstein who emphasizes the intimacy of this three-person struggle. The stage is expertly designed by Michael Yeargan, giving a taste of Helen’s artistic endeavors. It’s the type of set that can keep our interest without any spoken words of dialogue. The ceilings and walls are painted in wavy lines of ebullient color, while glitter highlights certain corners like stars hanging low in the night sky.
It’s a credit to the cast, Edelstein and, most especially, Fugard that The Road to Mecca still feels vital and visceral.
By John Soltes / Publisher / [email protected]
The Road to Mecca
Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Starring Rosemay Harris, Carla Gugino and Jim Dale
Running time: 150 minutes
Currently playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre at 227 W. 42nd St. in New York City. Click here for more information. Tickets start at $67.