Road To Mecca Review: Athol Fugard Without Apartheid
“It’s not all that important, of course,” the minister says, helping Miss Helen fill out a form to put her in an old-age home. It is one of many shrewd little moments in Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca”: The detail the pastor Marius is asking Miss Helen to remember for the application form – the precise date of her confirmation more than half a century earlier – is not just “not all that important,” it is actually not important at all.
Fugard uses just such moments to sculpt the textured layers of personality of the three characters in his 1974 play, and there are no finer stage performers than the three whose job it is to bring them to life in the Roundabout revival at the American Airlines Theater, especially Rosemary Harris, who last appeared on Broadway about two years ago in “The Royal Family” — and first appeared on Broadway in 1952! Yet, despite the performances, the accumulation of moments that are themselves not all that important makes “The Road to Mecca” feel more like a chore than a pleasure until the powerful last half hour of this two and a half hour play.
Harris plays Miss Helen, who was a church-going Afrikaner from the small town of New Bethesda in the desolate area of South Africa known as the Karroo, until she abruptly changed 15 years earlier when her husband died. She stopped going to church, and started crowding out her vegetable garden with concrete sculptures that she envisions as if in a dream and then feverishly works to create — owls, camels, mermaids, Buddhas. They are all mysteriously pointing East, toward Mecca.
Her Mecca seems monstrous to the townspeople whom she has known for decades, including Marius the widowed minister, played by Jim Dale, best-known for the everywhere-at-once energy of his roles in “Barnum” and “Scapino”, but here portraying a well-meaning prig for whom propriety matters more than passion. In the name of helping the aging Miss Helen, he is urging her to give up her oddly-decorated home and move into the church-sponsored nursing home
This outrages Elsa, a young, rebellious schoolteacher from distant Capetown who befriended Miss Helen on a chance encounter a few years before, and now pays her occasional visits. The play takes place on one such visit, lasting just a single night, in which Elsa has traveled 12 hours in response to a letter that Miss Helen wrote to her that makes clear her despair. Elsa is performed by Carla Gugino, who is best-known for her roles in the “Spy Kids” franchise and other such movies and on TV shows, but who has also done Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill on Broadway.
“The Road to Mecca” is the first of at least four plays by Fugard that will be presented over the next few months as part of a celebration of his 80th birthday. The Signature Theater Center, opening this month, has selected three of Fugard’s plays for its inaugural season. Fugard gained his reputation as a leading voice in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The officially racist policy of apartheid lasted nearly half a century, mobilizing the world. But apartheid ended almost two decades ago. It will be interesting to see whether works by the author of the devastating “Master Harold and the Boys” retain their force in a post-apartheid world. The evidence is not good in “The Road to Mecca,” which was inspired by the real story of a woman from the Karroo (the region where Fugard himself grew up) who became a pariah in her town because of the sculptures in her yard, and who committed suicide. In “The Road to Mecca,” the issue of race comes up only indirectly, but there are a plethora of other significant themes to choose from: the crucial role of art in people’s lives, the nature of friendship, the meaning of freedom, the conflict between individual vision and social acceptance, the fight with light against the darkness of impending death. It could feed a terrific term paper. If only the play’s many long speeches did not sometimes seem as heavy as Miss Helen’s concrete sculptures, and far less whimsical.
Set designer Michael Yeargan doesn’t actually show us any of those sculptures, a missed opportunity. The monsters are out in the yard, and the play takes place only in what must be the parlor. It must be the parlor because “The Road to Mecca” is filled with parlor talk. How more effective Fugard’s play would have been with less of that, and more of the monsters.
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The Road to Mecca
American Airlines Theater
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Gordon Edelstein; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; music and sound by John Gromada; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley
Cast: Rosemary Harris (Miss Helen), Carla Gugino (Elsa Barlow) and Jim Dale (Marius Byleveld).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
Ticket prices: $67 – $117
“The Road to Mecca” is set to run through March 4.
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