Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The Road to Mecca
The melody here is lovely indeed, for Fugard's plot concerns the relationship between two strong women united in their fight against a male hegemony that attempts at every turn to thwart their goals and ambitions.
Miss Helen (a luminous Wendy vanden Heuvel) is a self-taught artist who, after the death of her husband some 15 years prior to the action in the play, began creating a fantastical sculpture garden around her home in a small village in the Karoo, a semi-desert region of South Africa. As the play opens, Miss Helen is tidying her little house (marvelously rendered by scenic designer Eric Flatmo, with props and set decoration by Leah Hammond) for an unexpected–but most welcome–guest is making her way to Miss Helen's door.
The guest is Helen's much younger friend Elsa (Kodi Jackman), a former resident of the village who now resides in Capetown (some 800 miles distant), where she works as an English teacher in a "colored school." Elsa has come for a brief visit with her old friend, and they seem to bring out the best in each other. "There's a little girl hidden away in both of us," Helen says.
Helen and Elsa spend the first part of their time together catching up on the news. Helen talks about the controversy over the potential opening of a "bottle shop" (liquor store) and the uproar in the village–led by local minister Marius Byleveld (Victor Talmadge)–over this development. Elsa tells how, near the end of her 12-hour drive, she saw an African woman walking along the road, carrying a baby and a scant few belongings in a plastic bag. Elsa gave the woman a ride as far as she could, but the woman still had 80 miles of walking ahead of her. Elsa also mentions that she's in a bit of trouble with the school board for having the temerity to assign her students a 500 word essay on racism. She claims she'd love to stand up to the board and tell them "exactly what I think of them and their educational system." But she decides discretion is the better part of valor, and "as long as I'm in the classroom, a little subversion is possible."
These stories seem to speak to the challenges the women face: the interference in their lives by the narrow-minded and the powerful, and the journey that lies ahead for each: Elsa's to discover her singular path, and Helen's to fight off the strictures of the Afrikaner culture–and keep the reverend Byleveld from talking her into taking up residence in the local old age home.
What makes this production of The Road to Mecca so powerful is not just the large themes Fugard weaves in his text, but in the undeniably magnificent performances by this small cast, especially stage veteran Wendy vanden Heuvel as Helen. Her eyes are piercing–it's as though her glare alone could bore holes through the concrete creatures she constructs for her garden (owls and camels and wise men, all facing east) or even through the stone mesas surrounding the village. Jackman's Elsa is the equal to Helen, and Jackman plays her with an easy confidence that belies the doubts her character carries with her. Elsa has a mission on this journey, and she will let nothing stand in her way. As scene partners, the two have an easy familiarity with each other, a gentle, affectionate way of being that is almost sisterly in its closeness.
Talmadge plays Marius with an undeniable sense of privilege and confidence in his convictions that make him an ominous, even frightening presence–despite his relatively gentle, "man of God" manner.
Although The Road to Mecca can be a challenging drama, dealing with deep themes and hard truths, it is also a massively entertaining one, thanks in part to razor-sharp direction by Timothy Near (who also directed the equally amazing Master Harold ...and the Boys at Aurora Theatre a few years back), who keeps the kettle simmering–at least until it almost boils over.
If you are in the mood to escape, go see American Conservatory Theatre's production of The Wizard of Oz, but if you want to experience the joy of a trio of brilliant actors working their brand of magic, The Road to Mecca is just the ticket. But hey, why not buy two tickets and see them both?
The Road to Mecca runs through June 30, 2023, at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees every Sunday at 2:00p.m. Tickets are $25. For tickets and information, please visit www.zspace.org.