A Long and Winding ‘Road to Mecca’
By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
Quoting Albert Camus, the English teacher (Carla Gugino) exclaims, “Rebellion starts with just one man or woman standing up and saying: No. Enough!” In “The Road to Mecca,” playwright Athol Fugard explores that “rebellion” in terms of one septuagenarian’s survival.
Portraying Miss Helen, the superlative Rosemary Harris embodies the character’s conflicts: fear versus courage, darkness versus insight, and finally, death versus old age. For all of her poignancy, her inner life glitters as Harris pursues the character’s sense of truth with selfless rigor.
The veteran stage actor, best known for playing romantic leads and women in gorgeous gowns, is to the contrary, quite humbled here. Arthritic, twisted, and ostracized, Miss Helen faces the ultimate dilemma of her own mortality. But she remains just like the character, “radiant” with more inner light than all of the candles onstage.
Gugino, best known for playing the Marilyn Monroe character in the Broadway revival of “After the Fall,” portrays Elsa, a sensitive English teacher from Cape Town, South Africa. Her arrival in the village of New Bethesda, a place described as barren and backward, brings the effervescence of youth into Miss Helen’s empty life. With Elsa as the mirror to that isolation, the two achieve the intimacy that sustains the story. So when the pastor, Marius Byleveld, (Jim Dale) arrives to convince Miss Helen to move into a nursing home, Elsa prickles, becoming instantly confrontational.
Self righteous and devout, Marius appears to be a do-gooder, but his motives are inscrutable. Dale, a superlative comic actor, uses the mask of comedy to build a character who is opaque, unpredictable, and threatening. Unfortunately as written, the reverend’s conversation turns to lengthy monologues keeping him at a distance from the other characters. It’s all talk, engineered to keep Miss Helen from exhibiting her free spirit: her artistry.
Indeed, “The Mecca” of the title refers to her sculpture. As Elsa describes her first sighting of them, “Not three, but dozens of Wise Men? Owls with old motorcar headlights for eyes? Peacocks with more color and glitter than the real birds? Heat stroke? Am I hallucinating?” And then you! Standing next to a Mosque made out of beer bottles and staring back at me like one of your owls!”
To the narrow-minded citizens of this village in the Karoo desert region, however, Miss Helen’s creations are witnessed as idolatry: incarnations of the unknown, which they attack because they cannot understand them. But then, they don’t like anything that looks different.
While Miss Helen is an Afrikaner (one of European decent), her struggle for survival evokes the racial strife of Fugard’s South Africa. As is the playwright’s wont, the individual becomes the universal.
Director Gordon Edelstein tries to capture the psychological reality in the quotidian life of these three characters. It works sometimes, yet there is a sense that the play traverses the same ground over and over again. Themes are iterated and reiterated so that we feel like we’re listening to words rather than experiencing the moment.
As designed by Michael Yeargan, the set painted with odd colors and eccentric patterns reflects Miss Helen’s art, spiritual life and love of freedom. As Elsa describes the home it is a “little miracle of light and color.”
Ultimately, the play is about life: love, trust, and finally loneliness.
“The Road to Mecca” is a Roundabout Theatre production at The American Airlines Theatre on Broadway (227 West 42nd Street). The limited engagement runs through March 4th. Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at 212-719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the American Airlines box office.
Photography: Joan Marcus