The Road to Mecca
Playwright Athol Fugard had a South African friend who was possibly in that situation. But, then again, maybe she wasn't; maybe it was those pesky Afrikaners and their conservative, set-in ways that was the problem. Fugard, who loves taking measure of the social progress of his home country, has written The Road to Mecca about this dilemma, and the San Diego REPertory Theatre is producing it through October 17. While the premise is an interesting and timely one, the play ends up being more of an acting exercise than anything.
As dusk is falling, Elsa (Amanda Sitton) arrives from Capetown, 800 miles away, to visit her friend, Miss Helen (Kandis Chappell). Elsa is busy in Capetown with teaching and her own studies, but she has been disturbed by Miss Helen's recent correspondence and has driven the equivalent of San Diego to Gallup, New Mexico (with a return trip planned for the next day) to see what is wrong. It turns out that Miss Helen is being pushed by Marius Byleveld (Armin Shimerman), the town minister, to move into a group home operated by the church. Marius is concerned about Miss Helen's safety in her house, which is lit by candles and has cooking facilities that require more dexterity than Miss Helen may be able to muster. But, Miss Helen is also an eccentric who has decorated her property, her "Mecca," as she calls it, with statues of her own design, and her eccentricity sets her apart from her conservative neighbors. Marius' concern may also mask what he sees as an opportunity to be rid of what he considers at best to be an eyesore and at worst idolatry.
The first act, a conversation between the two women, moves slowly through these issues. Elsa has come because she's concerned that something is wrong, but Miss Helen puts on a good show of convincing her that all is well. It is not until Marius arrives in act two that more doubt is cast on Miss Helen's safety.
Conversations such as these are always difficult. They require time, and things come out slowly. Usually, the person about whom others are concerned isn't aware of the potential dangers and is only focused on staying in familiar space and avoiding "being put into a home." Mr. Fugard knows this, and his first act in particular runs in circles, making slow progress each time the loop comes around. Nevertheless, it moves at a glacial pace, and it takes strong performers to keep it even mildly interesting.
If you're a regular theatregoer in San Diego, you probably recognized the names of the three actors in this play. Kandis Chappell is an Associate Artist at the Old Globe who has worked all around the U.S., including Broadway. She hasn't worked in San Diego much lately, and it's wonderful to have her back. Amanda Sitton is a local actress and director who consistently does superior (and award-winning) work. Armin Shimerman is a theatre and television veteran who turned in an award-winning performance in last year's REP production of The Seafarer. Without these three performers, The Road to Mecca would have fallen flat on its face.
With the three of them, the play still felt a bit too much like an acting exercise on opening night. Ms. Chappell and Ms. Sitton eyed each other warily and played the hands they were dealt carefully and deliberately. Mr. Shimerman, by contrast, was more of a bull in a china shop, though his performance became more subtle as his motivations became clearer.
It's an actor's show, and Director Todd Salovey is not only associate artistic director of the REP but on the acting faculty at UCSD. His associate director is Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the fine artistic director of Moxie Theatre, who is known for her excellent work with actors. So, the rest of the production elements are not as essential. Nevertheless, the designers made the oddly configured Lyceum Space work for the show.
In the end, Mr. Fugard has written a talky play about a personal subject. He's got deeper themes on his mind, but they are sublimated to the story of his friend. See it, if only to enjoy the performing talents of three of San Diego's finest.
San Diego REPertory Theatre presents The Road to Mecca, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Todd Salovey, with Bruno Louchouarn, composer, Giulio Cesare Perrone, scenic designer, Ross Glanc, lighting designer, Mary Larson, costume designer, Tom Jones, sound designer, and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, associate director. The cast consists of Kandis Chappell (Miss Helen Martins), Armin Shimerman (Marius Byleveld), and Amanda Sitton (Elsa Barlow).
Performances Sept. 25 to Oct. 17, 2010, at The Lyceum Space at San Diego REPertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, in downtown San Diego. Tickets ($29 to $47, with discounts for students) are available at the Lyceum Box Office, by calling (619) 544-1000, or by visiting The San Diego REP website.
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