The Road to Mecca
Also see Susan's review of Wishful Drinking
Light is the central image in Athol Fugard's beautiful play The Road to Mecca, which is receiving a luminous production at Washington's Studio Theatre. Director Joy Zinoman and her three accomplished actors bring Fugard's poetic lines vividly to life, on a fascinatingly detailed set designed by Debra Booth.
The primary dramatic struggle of The Road to Mecca is the contest between Elsa Barlow (Holly Twyford), a Cape Town schoolteacher, and Marius Byleveld (Martin Rayner), a Dutch Reformed minister in the small Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda, to determine the future of Helen Martins (Tana Hicken), an iconoclastic woman nearing 70. Fifteen years earlier, Miss Helen discovered in herself an artistic drive that has led to the creation of her "Mecca"an assemblage of fantastical sculptures in concrete and glass, and more glass mosaics and mirrors inside the house. When she lights the candles and oil lamps, the house takes on an even more unearthly appearance, well represented in Booth's set and Michael Giannitti's lighting design. Now she's getting older and having some health problems, so the question is whether she can continue to live independently. (Fugard based the characters of the two women on real people.)
Part of the playwright's genius is that he doesn't stack the deck. Elsa, fleeing problems of her own, considers Helen her closest friend, and is outraged at the possibility of this "truly free spirit" going into a church-run home for senior citizens. However, Marius is not the selfish manipulator he might seem to be; in his stiff, reserved way, he cares for Helen as deeply as Elsa does.
Zinoman, who directs with great sympathy and intimacy, has cast two of the Washington area's best actresses in the roles of Helen and Elsa. Hicken has a way of weaving a spell of words that quietly demands the viewer's attention, specifically in Helen's long second-act monologue. Elsa is a more mercurial character who wears her emotions on her sleeve, and Twyford strikes all the right notes. Rayner has a less flashy role, but does an admirable job conveying the deep emotions hiding under his placid façade.