By Patrick Christiano
The luminous Rosemary Harris is a joy to behold in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s handsome production of Athol Fugard’s poetic tale, The Road to Mecca. The play directed by Gordon Edelstein is set in 1974 at the home of an elderly widow, Miss Helen (Harris), and the story focuses on her uncertainty and her struggle to live alone in a rural spot of South Africa’s remote Karoo region. The drama probes the challenges of the creative spirit in a climate infused with a lack of tolerance for anything different. The atmosphere in this remote area is dominated by a go to church every Sunday mentality and a limiting mindset.
When Helen’s husband died 15 years ago she began devoting her time more increasingly to fashioning her world into a vision of an imaginary Mecca, which she made real by sculpting statues and erecting them on the grounds surrounding her home. In addition she painted the inside of her home with intricately detailed dazzling colors brought to vivid life by the numerous candles she filled her home with, an artful place indeed, beautifully conceived here by Michael Yeargan.
The reclusive Miss Helen, alienated by the town, has of late become somewhat depressed and has expressed a lack of confidence in her own ability to sustain her lifestyle. Her main form of contact with the world is from her cleaning lady (who never appears), and the local priest, Pastor Marius (Jim Dale), who represents the village’s conservative values, and is encouraging Miss Helen to go into an old-age home.
The story begins when a radical Cape Town schoolteacher, Elsa (Carla Gugino) arrives at Miss Helen’s after a grueling 12 hour drive through a practically deserted area. She is here in response to an apparently desperate letter Miss Helen sent her. Elsa is intent on helping her longtime friend and getting her through this dark period, but unfortunately this takes nearly 45 minutes of rather dull theater.
Part of the problem in establishing the story is the skilled Ms. Gugino’s Elsa seems to be acting on her own rather than making real attempts to connect with Miss Helen, and the evening loses intimacy. As a result the puttering about between the two women becomes long and tedious until we get to the real reason for Elsa’s sudden visit.
Elsa quickly becomes suspicious of the pastor’s patriarchal traditions and the battle lines are drawn for a more engrossing second act concluding with a beautifully impassioned speech in which Miss Helen charts her arduous path to this now lonely place, her imaginary Mecca.|
Rosemary Harris at 84 is an inspiration. Always a rare actress, time has not dulled her luster and her performance here, particularly in the second act where Fugard is at his lyric best is simply stunning. Helen is imbued with world weary eloquence, but her tattered dignity, still in place, saves the day.
The Roundabout’s production begins Athol Fugard’s 80th birthday celebration, which will continue in February 2012 at Signature Theatre Company. Signature will launch their theatre’s new home, Signature Center, with a series of plays that will explore the works of the South African playwright, director, and actor, who was honored with a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Tony Awards this past season. Roundabout’s production of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca is by special arrangement with Signature Theatre Company.
The Road to Mecca is now playing at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. For tickets call 212-719-1300 or go to www.roundaboutheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus
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