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NEW YORK – Starting next month, Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company will mark the 80th birthday of preeminent South African dramatist Athol Fugard with a mini-season of his work. This first Broadway staging of The Road to Mecca is a prelude to that celebration. Watching beloved theater veteran Rosemary Harris in a major role is a reward in itself. But a compelling case is made for this wordy 1984 drama about individual and artistic freedom only deep into its second act.
Directed with trudging reverence by Gordon Edelstein for Roundabout Theatre Company, the production unfolds on a detailed set by Michael Yeargan, depicting the Karoo desert home of outsider artist Miss Helen (Harris) as an artsy-crafty domain of color and light. Caressed by Peter Kaczorowski’s supple lighting, its walls are alive with flecks of glitter and shimmering washes of reds and blues, and its shelves groan with esoteric knickknacks. This is a place of self-exile that amplifies Fugard’s reflective thoughts on both the sanctuary and isolation of creative endeavor.
Responding to a distraught letter in which the widowed Miss Helen shared her feelings of despair, Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino) makes an unannounced visit. A fiercely opinionated Cape Town English teacher whose own fulfillment has been cramped by professional, cultural and romantic disillusionment, Elsa has long admired the older Afrikaner woman as a resilient free spirit. Tired and irritable after the 12-hour drive and unsettled by her encounter with an African woman and her baby facing an 80-mile journey on foot, Elsa makes for prickly company.
The protracted first act is built out of speech upon speech from the two women as they skirt around the central conflicts without fully articulating them. Much of this burden falls on Gugino (Entourage). Mesmerizing in previous New York stage work, she strains here to find some human warmth beneath the overbearing character’s deluge of verbiage.
Fugard writes impeccably honed dialogue; it’s just that there’s so much of it, and his reams of exposition are far from seamless. Without a director capable of accessing the lightness and delicacy in his dense thickets of words, his plays can veer into windy speechifying. There’s also a tendency here for the playwright to belabor his metaphors, making the 2½-hour drama repetitious, often dull and stylistically dated. This is at heart an intimate play that seems needlessly stretched, swimming in a too-large theater.
While The Road to Mecca, set in 1974, is one of Fugard’s less outwardly political plays, his work invariably echoes the struggle of a nation to overcome generations of social inequity and rigid Afrikaner traditionalism. That theme emerges in the fears of Miss Helen (inspired by the artist Helen Martins) as she weighs her own growing frailty against pressure from the conservative villagers to relinquish her eccentric hermitage and enter a church-run retirement home.
In their strict notion of order, nonconformist Miss Helen is viewed as a pariah. Rather then meekly continuing to attend Sunday services like a respectable widow, she abandoned the church when her husband died 15 years earlier and began dedicating herself to building an elaborate sculpture garden. That unseen menagerie of owls, mermaids, camels and wise men, all pointing toward Helen’s vision of Mecca, spreads whispers of idolatry through the village.
Representing that puritanical faction, local minister Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale) shows up at the close of act one to exert his passive-aggressive powers of persuasion on Miss Helen. The battle of wills between Elsa and Marius for the old woman’s future appears inevitable, but the minister’s motives are revealed to be more complex than they initially seem. Playing a man ruled by propriety, Dale is quietly affecting, his meddlesome purpose at odds with his compassion and his deeper feelings for Helen.
However, the fireworks come not from the expected clash on Helen’s behalf, but from her gradual summoning of the strength to speak for herself. Harris is compelling throughout, bringing a stoicism and alertness that deftly counter the physical evidence of enfeebled old age. But it’s only when she fires up into a rapturous aria that describes her bereavement, her loss of faith and her discovery of art as a liberation that the meandering play fully reveals itself.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through March 4)
Cast: Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino, Jim Dale
Director: Gordon Edelstein
Playwright: Athol Fugard
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Music/sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company, by special arrangement with Signature Theatre Company
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