Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 17, 2012
The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Set design by Michael Yeargan. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Dialect coach Barbara Rubin. Cast: Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino, and Jim Dale.
That's because it addresses, in perhaps the most overt and stirring way in Fugard's canon, the question of freedom. What it is, why it is, who has it, who should have more of it, who maybe should have less of it, and what its relationship is to the heart... all these aspects, and many more, are the fuel of this play, which is set in 1974 and presented as little more than a series of conversations about what one person can and should achieve. The figure around whom the discussions primarily rotate is Miss Helen (Harris), an Afrikaner in her late 60s who is being cajoledor perhaps forcedout of her house and into an old age home, in no small part because of the front yard she's filled with miraculous creatures all pointing their way to the enlightened land of the east.
With her collection of concrete creations (the Mecca of the title, by the way), which she's fashioned despite many years of declining health and, even worse, declining faith, Miss Helen has, perhaps, at last unlocked her reason for existing. And she's paid dearly for that privilege: The display has been stoned by village children, and aroused the ire of the adults, including Miss Helen's ostensible friend, Marius (Dale), the local minister who insists he wants to protect her from the wider unforgiving world outside her door. But does she need protecting? She has become so isolated, physically as well as emotionally, that she no longer sees anyone but Marius and her black cleaning woman, and has apparently settled within the universe of infinite possibilities she's constructed within her four walls.
Fugard never pretends there are clear-cut answers to this, and those working on this production similarly refuse to take easy shortcuts. Edelstein's direction is piquant and humid, nicely capturing the claustrophobia of the house (the perhaps too-attractive work of Michael Yeargan, unevenly lit by Peter Kaczorowski) and the illusory openness of the world beyond its confines. Gugino glows as the fiery Elsa, finding all the uncertainty in this woman trapped between her convictions and her preconceptions of what's happening around her. Dale strikes the proper notes of comforting malice to make Marius sufficiently complex, though he sometimes pushes too hard. Harris is magnificent as Miss Helen, beginning as a closed bloom and opening to full petal by the end of the second act, and giving in Helen's lengthy climactic speech about the importance of the dozens of candles in her house a borderline operatic defense of the artist's eternal role as documenter of the truth, regardless of whether it's one anyone else can recognize.
That speech, however, is the first time the action unifies. With much of the first act devoted to exposition and the first part of the second surrounding the rather mundane issue of whether Miss Helen will or will not sign herself away to a nursing home she probably doesn't need, the play can often seem long on words and short on content. The presence of too many schematic devices, such as the particular destruction of one of the house's front windows or the scabs that have appeared on Miss Helen's hands, don't so much nudge the story along as kick it; though the finished version of this work has come relatively late in Fugard's output (it had its Off-Broadway premiere in 1988), it suffers from what feels like a young writer's eagerness to make points rather than establish an environment in which they can make themselves.
But it's difficult to walk away from The Road to Mecca without a tear in your eye and an elevated awareness of the struggle for acceptance that's shared by anyone who's oppressed in any way. Miss Helen would be the first to admit that she's no saint, but she's the fulcrum for Fugard's winning examination of forming a closer communion with whatever God or goal leads you through your life. She is at once the embodiment of hope and resilience, as much because she created her Mecca as because of her willingness to defend it to her final breath. And why not? It, like the play about it, is a reminder that even within the most daunting of externally applied barriers, freedom may always be found in the minds and souls of those willing to look for it.