Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
That it is 1974 in religiously conservative, still-apartheid South Africa (New Bethesda to be precise) tells us almost without hearing that this garden and home is not the sort of place "the ladies of the village feel comfortable to come for tea." Yet here lives a village-born Afrikaner (that is, of early settler, Dutch heritage) Helen, now almost seventy, who has spent the last fifteen years of her life creating her own Mecca and who no longer cares to have tea with those women she once played with as a kid, whose "rude eyes look at me and all my work."
Helen's story, based on the real-life narrative of Helen Martins and her residence, The Owl House, is the subject of Athol Fugard's 1984 play The Road to Meccain which the playwright wondrously weaves threaded themes and subjects ranging from dealing with advancing age and its ensuing infirmities, with women's rights and the rights of those native-born whose skin is dark, with lost and unspoken love, and with the darkness of depression. Under the sensitive, gentle, and highly intuitive-driven direction of Elizabeth Kruse Craig, Pear Theatre presents a staging of The Road to Mecca that boasts a cast of three that could hardly be more perfect to tell this beautifully moving and yet importantly challenging story of a woman who declares, "The only reason I've got for being alive is my Mecca. Without that, I'm ... nothing."
Helen lives very much alone in a house that she has been re-creating since her husband's death fifteen years prior. Her only companionsbeyond her beloved statutesare the local minister, a young school teacher friend from Cape Town, and a mixed-race woman Katrina (whom Fugard keeps off-stage since in 1984 blacks and whites cannot appear on the same stage in South Africa).
Her young friend Elsa arrives unexpectedly after a grueling twelve-hour ride through the semi-desert Karoo, here only to spend one night. She arrives after three months of no contact with Helen, exhausted and clearly irritated, but also worried. A recent letter from Helen about "a darkness inside of me" where she writes, "Everything is ending, and I am alone in the dark" is the source of Elsa's urgent if short visit. She eventually learns that the local Church Council has "discussed me and my situation" and has urged Marius (Helen's minister friend) to persuade her to leave her house and move into the local Sunshine Home for the Aged. For a woman who has declared, "The only reason I've got for being alive is my Mecca. Without that, I'm ... nothing," Elsa believes Helen can under no circumstance sign an agreement that Marius has left for her signature. Her home is her Mecca; her Mecca is her life.
But the true nature of the "situation" has yet to be revealedonly one of many untold secrets to be uncovered that Helen, Elsa, and even Marius have held from the others until this particular evening. Wills and wits clash as the minutes pass, and long-felt feelings of love and admiration will be tested to see if trust really exists hand-in-hand with that love.
The sometimes sweet, sometimes heart-breaking, but in the end inspiring and uplifting story of Helen comes to full life through Diane Tasca's stunning, stirring performance. Through seemingly countless nuances of crease-rich facial expressions, eyes that well with near tears and then sparkle with mischievous twinkle, and hands with arthritic-aching fingers that often stay close to lips slightly open and trembling, Ms. Tasca's Helen hardly needs the beautiful words of Fugard to tell the story scripted for her. Yet when she does speak, the South African accented voice now tired, somewhat confused, and dangerously close to defeat also rises to reveal still existing defiance, courage, and vision. And with her moments of silence, Ms. Tasca's Helen is often loudest in expressing who this woman really is at the crossroads juncture of her journey to her Mecca.
As soon as she arrives, Brianna Mitchell's Elsa appears on edge as heard in her voice and seen in her exasperated fling of arms and plop of body onto whatever couch or bed is nearby. At times like a bull in a china shop as she is determined to take control of Helen's future, at other times her Elsa retreats to a corner like a pouting child, supposedly resolved to let Helen do whatever she, and Marius, want to do. While she cries out to Helen, "Sometimes the contradictions in you make me want to scream," the contradictions in her own life are puzzles whose pictures slowly become clearer as she inserts the pieces she has kept hidden away from Helen. Ms. Mitchell excels in slowly, ever-so-cautiously revealing the truths about a young, zealous woman tortured in worry for her elderly friend but also plagued by her own sufferings that get compounded by the apartheid conditions of South Africa.
Much of her current sense of annoyance comes to a head when Marius appears at the door. At first glance, Marius is a soft-spoken, genuinely kind widower who ministers to Helen as a devoted friend even though she has rejected his church and its teachings these past fifteen years. But Marius also has mysteries of motivation hidden away somewhere underneath the gentle demeanor and voice that John Baldwin so wonderfully uses in his portrayal of the minister. And when Marius's own vexation and impatience comes to a head with Helen's sudden reluctance to leave her home, Mr. Baldwin shocks her and us as he blurts, "Your life has becomes as grotesque as those statues of yours out there." Mr. Baldwin's performance becomes the third part of an ensemble whose combined force in telling Helen's, Elsa's and Marius's stories is formidable.
The aforementioned enchanting and delighting set of Ting Na Wang comes to marvelous light through her combined efforts with lighting designer Ben Hemmen, both guided by the insights of director Craig. A room full of lit candles reflected in mirrors helps us see who Helen really is at her core while eight "chandeliers" of milk bottles, suddenly coming to light, help us finally to visualize the Mecca she already sees. Rachel Bratt chimes in with background sounds of Middle East music that further create Helen's Mecca in the heart of a small town in South Africa.
Together, the Pear's director, cast, and creative team for The Road to Mecca combine their genius, skill, and sensitivity for a story whose complexity is simply told in a manner compelling, memorable, and heartwarming.
The Road to Mecca, through February 11, 2018, at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.