Entertainment :: Theatre

The Road to Mecca

by Joseph Pisano
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Monday Jan 23, 2012
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Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino in "The Road to Mecca"
Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino in "The Road to Mecca"   (Source:Joan Marcus)

Nothing camouflages vitality like old age. The body may break down, but for some the soul is as strong as ever, if not stronger. Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), an Afrikaner living in the remote Karoo village of New Bethesda, South Africa, fits this description perfectly.

For much of Athol Fugard’s "The Road to Mecca," Miss Helen is the picture of decrepitude, shabbily dressed, stooped, and shuffling around her eccentrically decorated and painted home like someone who, for her own good, should be sent off to a retirement community.

And if Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), the local pastor and a fellow Afrikaner, has his way, Miss Helen will, in fact, be consigned to heaven’s waiting room, where she can spend the rest of her days anticipating the inevitable. A long-time widow, Miss Helen has been a thorn in the side of Byleveld and his judgmental flock since her husband’s passing 15 years ago, which for her was both a mournful rupture and a glorious one.

Freed from the wifely expectations of her marriage -- by all accounts, a satisfactory, though rote, partnership -- Miss Helen finally became the passionately imaginative person she likely always was somewhere deep down inside.

Much to the chagrin of her joyless neighbors and the fogyish Byleveld, Miss Helen shared her new found self publicly; she not only turned her home into a beautiful ode to color and light, but also let her creativity spill into the front yard. There she erected sculptures the New Bethesda Afrikaners, ever protective of their physical and emotional desolation, condemned as ridiculous, obscene, and, in Byleveld’s scolding estimation, "idolatrous."

Exhibiting the type of spiritual rebirth disdained by those who prefer their religious expression cold and circumscribed, Miss Helen now lives a mostly solitary existence, dismissed as a loon by the small-minded townspeople with whom she once worshiped.

But Miss Helen does have one good friend, Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a young English schoolteacher from Cape Town. Proving her loyalty, Barlow has driven the 800 miles to New Bethesda, a place she loathes, because of a troubling letter she received from Miss Helen; listening to Elsa read the letter aloud, it appears Miss Helen, who suffers from crippling arthritis and poor eyesight, is on the verge of succumbing to her body’s limitations, either by giving into Byleveld’s persistent prodding or by taking matters into her own, incredibly pained hands.

Despite its lapses into long-windedness, "The Road to Mecca" is ultimately something truly special: a serious and affecting meditation on faith and love.

Miss Helen’s weakness is sad, terrifying, and infuriating to Barlow, who, in 1970s South Africa, is feeling pretty weak herself. An uncompromising liberal, who takes Byleveld to task for the racial hypocrisies of the Calvinist Church, Barlow’s life is collapsing under the weight of her own ideals. Given her struggles, she may actually need to save Miss Helen so that Miss Helen can, in turn, save her.

Especially in the first act, Fugard’s exposition-dense play is too explanatory for its own good, but Harris and Gugino skillfully handle the playwright’s torrent of words. One never has the sense that they have stopped listening to each other, and so we continue to listen as well.

And the effort is more than worthwhile, because, despite its lapses into long-windedness, "The Road to Mecca" is ultimately something truly special: a serious and affecting meditation on faith and love.

These themes begin to crystallize when, near the end of the first act, Byleveld arrives, wedded to his religious conservatism. Ostensibly the villain of the piece, he is not so much a corrupt man, as he is a dense and timid one. Dale’s performance smartly brings out this complexity of character.

Much tighter as a three-hander than it was as a two-hander, the play becomes a seesawing tête-à-tête between Barlow and Byleveld, with Miss Helen caught in the middle. As the English woman and the Afrikaner clergyman lob verbal ordnance at each other, it occasionally seems as if Miss Helen will fall prey to the collateral damage, but, again, looks can be deceiving.

Having carved out a uniquely sacred space for herself in this world -- an ethereal haven she calls her "Mecca" -- Miss Helen will not let go of it without a fight; and so, at the end of the play, she unleashes a rapturous defense, breathtakingly delivered by Harris, of all she has created and dreamed.

Although, by this point, the audience has seen Michael Yeargan’s tie-dyed, overstuffed, and what some might term kitschy set for more than two hours, in the afterglow of Harris’s stirring monologue, it suddenly does become for us what it is has always been for her: a profound manifestation of the divine.

With indispensable assists from Yeargan, Peter Kaczorowski’s candle-heavy lighting design and Harris’s magnificent performance, director Gordon Edelstein reverently serves Fugard’s elevated intention, which, essentially, is to track the artist’s path to God.

"The Road to Mecca" continues through March 4 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. For more information, visit the "The Road to Mecca" website.

Joseph Pisano is a freelance writer living in New York.

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