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A CurtainUp Review
The Road to Mecca
By Elyse Sommer
Roundabout Theater audiences may find themselves equally impatient with this revival of Athol Fugard's 1982 play, The Road to Mecca. The South African playwright-actor-director is deservedly revered for having proved again and again that the pen can indeed be a mighty weapon against injustices like his country's long lingering policy of racial apartheid. However, Fugard does have a tendency to make his metaphors overly obvious and saddle his characters with overlong, stasis producing monologues. The Road to Mecca is a prime example of these dramaturgical weak links in an otherwise brilliant career. The candles, literally a necessity in Miss Helen's unelectrified home are an all too obvious symbol of coping with darkness and light. And even Rosemary Harris, an actress who doesn't know how to give anything less than a superb performance, and Carla Gugino's fierce Elsa can't keep the first act from sagging under the weight of the repetitious and overwritten dialogue that establishes the women's relationship and the details about the turning point not only in Miss Helen's life but that of the much younger woman.
Mr. Fugard is still very much alive and in fact helming another of his best known plays, Blood Knot, at the new Signature Theater Center further West on 42nd Street. Too bad he couldn't have seen the Roundabout revival as as opportunity to give The Road to Mecca the first act trim it has always needed.
My complaints (which were echoed by remarks from theater goers overheard at intermission) notwithstanding Miss Helen and Elsa do have the qualities that distinguish Fugard's work. They are people he obviously cares about enough to fully reveal their complexity. This is true even of the sanctimonious Pastor Marius Byleveld. He represents the whole conservative Calvinist community's view of Miss Helen's art as sacrilegious monstrosities (and by extension turn any artist not fitting the prescribed mold into a pariah) and is indeed something of the bully Elsa accuses him of being. But the playwright ultimately absolved from being the villain of the piece.
As a matter of fact, it's when the questionably well-intentioned Pastor arrives at the very end of that slow-moving first act, that the dramatic temperature rises and the stage comes truly alive. That's when the drama moves full tilt into a battle that has Miss Helen caught between Byleveltd and Elsa.
With Jim Dale taking on the role originally played by Fugard, the stasis of the first act is quickly forgotten and we see the playwright at his most powerful. Dale, who's best known for his musical gigs, especially Barnum and the 127 character voices in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire audio book, is also a superb and charismatic dramatic actor (I still remember him in the New Group's wonderful revival of The Comedians). It's mesmerizing to watch him capture this man's frighteningly persuasive dogmatism to overwhelm Miss Helen, and then watch bits of that unshakable righteousness crumbling. His one scene flies by and paves the way for Rosemary Harris's final and finest moment. That's when her Miss Helen pull herself out of the depth of her depression and admits that she must learn to blow out the candles with which she's been trying to "banish darkness" and that is perhaps as far as she can go with her "Mecca."
Though primarily a very personal rather than a political play like Blood Knot and Master Harold . . .and the Boys, Miss Helen's status as an outsider makes her somewhat of a stand-in for Fugard's own fight for artistic freedom. Elsa's conflicts at the Cape Town school where she teaches and her meeting with a black girl she met during her long drive through the Karoo desert reflect his anti-apartheid battles, though her personal as well as career issues, seem less organic to the plot than Miss Helen's story.
Gordon Edelstein tries his best to make the most of his fine cast but he seems defeated by the play's too slow tempo and has misdirected set designer Michael Yeargan. The sculptured are correctly left Miss Helen's sculptures outside the interior of her home where the relatively uneventful plot unfolds. What we see of that home is cluttered but without any signs of an imaginative artist living there The candles scattered all around are lit but somehow this should evoke more magic than it does.
As it's left to the viewer's imagination to picture Miss Helen's spiritually envisioned sculptures, Mr. Fugard also doesn't spell out what's going to happen once Elsa heads back to Cape Town. The real Miss Helen actually committed suicide but her sculptures were rescued from their scorned status and Helen Nieman's home has been turned into museum, named The Owl House for one of her favorite creatures.
Though the last New York production of The Road to Mecca was in 1988 and pre-dated Curtainup's 1996 debut, we've reviewed our share of Athol Fugard's plays, as evident from the list below. Those reviews have varied from highly complimentary, to less so, and more often than not, like this take on the Roundabout revival, a mixed bag of enthusiasm and disappointment.
The Captain's Tiger: A Memoir For the Stage
Coming Home-San Francisco
Coming Home-Los Angeles
Exits and Entrances
Have You Seen Us?
Hello and Goodbye
The Island/Fugard, Athol
Master Harold. . .and the boys
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead/ Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona (BAM 2008)
Sorrows & Rejoicings
The Train Driver-London
The Train Driver-Los Angeles
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company