This year is playwright Athol Fugard's 80th birthday and the first production in New York to be mounted in the honor of this South African trailblazer is, appropriately enough, about the bravery of artists.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's somewhat sleepy but still satisfying production of "The Road to Mecca" opened Tuesday at the American Airlines Theater featuring Carla Gugino, Jim Dale and the luminous Rosemary Harris.
"It grows on you," Harris' character says at the beginning of the play. She's talking about the small South African village where the action is set, but she might as well be describing the piece itself, which really only gets going in Act 2.
Fugard's play was inspired by a real woman he knew in passing named Helen Martins, who, after an uneventful life, turned herself into a driven artist, covering the walls of her home with crushed glass patters and filling her yard with playful concrete sculptures of owls, sheep, camels, religious icons and imaginary beings all facing east toward Mecca.
Shunned by her neighbors as crazy, she nevertheless kept working on her art until she took her own life in 1976. After languishing for decades in a state of disrepair, her home is now a popular tourist attraction.
Fugard puts Miss Helen in the center of a tug-of-war. On one side is Pastor Marius Byleveld, a local priest played by Dale, who finds the widow's work to be idolatrous and wants to pack her off to a church retirement home. On the other side is Elsa, a young school teacher from Cape Town played by Gugino, who has arrived to care for the elder woman, finding her inspiring and urging her to keep creating uncomfortable art.
Under Gordon Edelstein's straightforward direction, Harris plays the widow as a doddering old lady who seems paralyzed by the choice before her at the beginning — should I stay or should I go? — but gradually shakes off her passivity over the course of the play and delivers a rather wonderful speech about why she is driven to create the art she does.
"I had as little choice over all that has happened as I did over the day I was born," she declares with Harris' eyes blazing with fire, as always bringing dignity to her part. "They say mad people can't tell the difference between what is real and what is not. I can."
Michael Yeargan's idiosyncratic set shows only the inside of Miss Helen's home, which is a bizarre but warm space, the walls crudely painted with beautiful hues of blue and red and crushed glass accents glinting like glitter. The odd sculptures she has been busy making are not shown — a clear statement that what they actually look like matters less than what they stand for. The set is also made alive by Peter Kaczorowski's fading sunlight and later filled by candle light.
Gugino plays Elsa as a sophisticated, Balzac- and Camus-reading woman with a restless edge — a woman who is being eaten away by the guilt of being a liberal white South African during apartheid. She returns again and again to her story of picking up a hitchhiking black woman carrying a baby for miles. She's haunted by the woman's plight for both personal and political reasons, which become clear at the end.
The two women have an interesting relationship that's akin to the push-pull of a mother-daughter dynamic. Elsa is an impatient revolutionary in comparison to the more live-and-let-live Miss Helen, illustrating the divide between urbanized, English-speaking South Africans and rural Afrikaners (though their uneven accents sometimes get in the way of clarity.) Both women haven't been completely honest with each other and must learn to trust again.
Their relationship is tested by the appearance of the pastor, who is wonderfully conceived by Dale in a part that has been played by the playwright himself. Dale's pastor is clearly the villain here and he is played to the unctuous, fussy hilt, and yet he is hardly cartoonish. Dale almost steals the show — if it wasn't for Harris up there, too, he'd sneak home with the play.
The pastor slowly reveals his religious objections to the art — he calls them "cement monstrosities" — and his concern for an elderly woman who may be unsafe living alone. "Your life has become as grotesque as those creations of yours out there," he tells her. That only provokes Elsa more and she shoots back, somewhat unsubtly: "Those statues out there are monsters. And they are that for the simple reason that they express Helen's freedom."
The face-off between Elsa and the pastor has been a long time in coming — Act 1 drags on way too long simply to establish the jeopardy Miss Helen is in. The play then has a hard time deciding how to end after Miss Helen has taken the stage for her grand soliloquy, a manifesto for any artist to defy convention.
Before the curtain goes down, Valiums have been handed out — on stage, not off. But with all that candlelight, talk over cups of tea and a heartwarming conclusion, it might seem as if those calming pills were supplied with the tickets.
Traveling “The Road to Mecca” can be a trying trip.
The 1984 play by South African writer Athol Fugard is wordy and circuitous and waves metaphors around like emergency flares.
On the plus side, beautiful stretches and a generous humanity eventually emerge in the three-hander, now making its Broadway premiere in a Roundabout Theatre Company revival.
Fugard’s focus is art and nonconformity (themes that speak to his own career), with a brief detour to the topic of race, a subject central to many of his works.
Inspired by the life of Helen Martins, the story unwinds in 1974 in the small Karoo village of New Bethesda.
Nearing 70, Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris) has been an outcast since her husband’s death 15 years earlier. That’s when she turned her vegetable patch into a gallery for odd statues of east-facing wise men, mermaids and camels.
The sculptures, unseen but hinted at in her glittery home decor, has made her a source of suspicion by other locals. The ground glass she uses to make her pieces glitter is wreaking havoc with her vision.
Helen’s lone friend, Elsa (Carla Gugino), a teacher at a Cape Town school, is a sort of pariah, too. She’s in hot water for instructing her black students to write a letter to the state president about racial inequality.
A troubling missive from a depressed Helen compels Elsa to drive 800 miles to see her elderly kindred spirit.
Their elliptical conversation — about darkness, trust and love — occupies the drama’s meandering first leg.
The livelier second half includes minister Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), who’s pressuring Helen to move into a church-run old-folks home.
Will Helen cave? At last something resembling conflict arrives. And Elsa’s references to her disastrous love affair and a woman with a baby she met en route make sense.
Patience is the name of that roadside stranger, and it’s what it takes to appreciate “Mecca.”
Under Gordon Edelstein’s sensitive direction, the starry cast brings out the best of what’s on the page.
Dale (“Barnum”) is appealing enough to make Marius more than a stock meanie, while Gugino’s (“Desire Under the Elms”) straightforward work brings out softer contours in the brittle Elsa.
Best of all is Harris, a stage vet also known as Aunt May from “Spider-Man” movies. Her delicate and detailed performance of a woman battling the darkness that can seep into one’s soul shimmers with its own bright light.
It’s pretty clear the Roundabout company is in the theater business, because its latest Broadway show, “The Road to Mecca,” would have a hard time getting made in Hollywood.
Forget about multiplex-friendly instant gratification: This 1984 play by Athol Fugard (“Tsotsi,” “‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys”) unfolds slowly, dragged down by an exposition-laden first act. Even worse, from a movie mogul’s standpoint, conversations between two women take up much of the story — and they aren’t chatting about guys or kids, either.
The final blow: One of these women is waaaay north of 40. The horror!
But while “The Road to Mecca” meanders — and its intimacy is lost in the vast American Airlines Theatre — the show’s low-key approach ultimately works in its favor. Even better, we get to watch luminous stage icon Rosemary Harris duet with Tinseltown glamour-puss Carla Gugino (“Sin City”).
Harris’ Miss Helen is an eccentric artist who lives in a remote South African village. She’s not doing well, physically and mentally, and an anxious letter to Elsa Barlow (Gugino) has prompted the younger woman to drive 800 miles from Cape Town for a visit.
The old, provincial Afrikaner and the urban teacher from an English South African background don’t seem to have much in common. But against all odds, their friendship feels very real, very grounded. Both the stars and director Gordon Edelstein — who helmed an excellent “Glass Menagerie” in 2009 — succeed in suggesting the comfortable affection Elsa and Miss Helen share as they talk about life.
The drama flourishes in the second act, when local minister Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale, making a welcome return to the stage) drops by. He’s trying to persuade Miss Helen to leave her house for a retirement home, and at first he looks like a manipulative, judgmental creep. Byleveld seems particularly riled by the older woman’s outsize sculptures, her “Mecca,” which have taken up her garden — Miss Helen is based on the real-life outsider artist Helen Martins, whose Owl House is now a South African national monument.
“She did something which small minds and small souls can never forgive,” Elsa says, jumping to her friend’s defense. “She dared to be different!”
But the reverend is more complex than he seems, and Fugard endows him with the same layered depth he affords the women. There are no obvious villains and heroes here, and no easy resolutions, either.
While far from perfect — Fugard occasionally lapses into sappy melodrama; set designer Michael Yeargan’s South African shack looks more like a Santa Fe B&B — the show is a slow-burning pleasure. By the time Harris delivers Miss Helen’s final speech about her quixotic artistic quest, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue rather than your cellphone.
As Rosemary Harris says the word, “darkness” is a thing with tentacles that clutch and choke and smother. It erupts from her with a soul-deep rumble late in the first act of Athol Fugard’s “Road to Mecca,” which opened on Tuesday night at the American Airlines Theater. And once Ms. Harris has said “darkness”— or said it that way — it’s impossible to look on her character or the play in which she appears with the comfort of detachment.
In this quiet, slow and ultimately powerful production, directed by Gordon Edelstein and featuring strong performances from Jim Dale and Carla Gugino, Ms. Harris plays Miss Helen, an elderly South African woman who has hitherto seemed gracious, fretful and rather prosaic. Now she has given undiluted voice to the kind of fear that lurks in everyone — one of those personal fears that are so profound that people shirk from naming them. She is magnificent and shrunken, harrowed and harrowing. We also now accept, without conditions, that this homey, Grandma Moses-like sculptor is an artist, with all that that word implies.
First staged in New York in 1988, but only now receiving its Broadway premiere, “The Road to Mecca” is the first of at least four major productions in New York this season celebrating the 80th birthday of Mr. Fugard. (Three, including his breakout work “Bloodknot,” from 1961, are being produced by the Signature Theater Company.) With its central focus on the inevitable and necessary apartness of those who create art, “Mecca” might seem an atypical work for Mr. Fugard, who is best known for the fierce and overt political engagement of his plays, mostly set in his native South Africa in the days of apartheid.
But “Mecca” throbs with a despairing awareness of the South Africa of the 1970s as a broken and corrupting nation, a spiritual prison for those who inhabit it. Set in the remote village of New Bethesda, in the Karoo desert region, this play considers the nature and possibilities of freedom within such a place. Even prisoners, it seems, can live in liberty, even — or perhaps especially — in the sort of solitary confinement in which Miss Helen, a gentle pariah, has existed for 15 years.
An Afrikaner widow, Miss Helen grew up in New Bethesda and has seldom left. But the real country of her allegiance is of her own making: an internal land of rich and exotic images to which she has given form in the sculptures that fill the yard around her house. (We don’t see them, which is probably for the best.) Though she retains a distracted curiosity about village gossip, she is, by and large, oblivious to the social restlessness of the world beyond her.
Not so the play’s two other characters, political opposites who both take a heated interest in Miss Helen’s welfare. Elsa Barlow (Ms. Gugino), is a restless young urban schoolteacher from Cape Town, disgusted with the state of her nation, while Marius Byleveld (Mr. Dale), a contemporary of Miss Helen, is a provincial minister in New Bethesda for whom the status quo is as sacred as holy writ.
“Mecca” is structured as a battle for the future of the ostensibly passive and bewildered Miss Helen. Both Marius and Elsa think of themselves as having a special affinity with her, though only Elsa can honestly claim that kinship. “Mecca” begins when Elsa arrives, exhausted and frustrated after a 12-hour drive to Miss Helen’s home, having received a distressed letter from the older woman.
The first act is a (very) gradual unfolding of the reasons Miss Helen sent that letter, a mutual question-and-answer session. When Marius enters the conversation in the second act, it appears there is even more to learn about the sources of Miss Helen’s despair.
“Mecca” needs Marius. The first act has always been a bit of a slog, heavy with big blocks of exposition-crammed speeches. And though Ms. Gugino (seen on Broadway in “After the Fall” and “Desire Under the Elms”) is a bracingly vital actress, there’s no disguising that Elsa exists principally to provide a worldly perspective, both on the unworldly and otherworldly Miss Helen and on a morally contaminated country. (Ms. Gugino does beautifully by Elsa’s climactic, far-ranging hymn of anguish.)
Elsa can seem a tad patronizing — more, I think, than Mr. Fugard intended — when she goes on about Miss Helen’s artistic magic. Mr. Dale’s Marius (a part first played in New York by Mr. Fugard) is more openly patronizing. (He dismisses Miss Helen’s art, with a tiny fishhook of a smile, as a hobby.) A first-rate stage veteran, whose Broadway career ranges from the musical “Barnum” to Peter Nichols’s “Joe Egg,” Mr. Dale unerringly locates both the rigidity and the tremors in a resolutely pious man whose certainty comes under siege.
A virtuoso in comic explorations of the actress’s artifice (“The Royal Family,” “Hay Fever,” “Waiting in the Wings”), Ms. Harris here delivers a startlingly different portrait of an artist. Her Miss Helen wouldn’t even know how to strike an artistic pose.
Her exquisite oval face — framed by short, lank, unwashed-looking hair — is as devoid of a diva’s coquetry as it is of makeup. She never twinkles at us, à la Helen Hayes (a dangerous temptation with this part), and she resists automatically switching on the radiance that is at her command. She lets us find it within Miss Helen. And there comes a point near the end when she seems positively ablaze, an all-eclipsing torch amid the myriad candles with which Miss Helen illuminates her house.
Of course the blaze is the brighter because of the darkness that is waiting to consume it. Patterns of light and dark have been laid out starkly from the beginning. Subtlety is not Mr. Fugard’s forte. Many of his plays are built of big blocks of speeches, weighted with central recurring images. (And by the way, Ms. Harris, at 84, never falters in delivering such long speeches. Could she please let me know what vitamins she takes?)
Yet those blocks have assumed a towering, powerful shape by the end of “Mecca” that speaks to mortal hopes and fears so directly it makes you catch your breath. Mr. Edelstein’s production — designed by Michael Yeargan (set) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) — seems almost too plain in the beginning. The eccentric folly and glory of Miss Helen’s house isn’t all that evident here.
But there is method in Mr. Edelstein’s approach, as there is in Ms. Harris’s performance. It’s easy to spot artists when they’re as spectacularly eccentric as Louise Nevelson or Salvador Dalí. Ms. Harris asks us to look close to find the creative soul within. And with the generosity of, yes, a great artist, she rewards us with the illusion that we have discovered the majesty of Miss Helen all by ourselves.
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Athol Fugard deserves a retrospective. Which is what this distinguished South African playwright, director, actor and social activist will receive as resident playwright for the Signature Theater Company's inaugural season in its new home -- but Roundabout gets in the first tribute with this respectful revival of the scribe's most personal drama, "The Road to Mecca." If anyone is Broadway royalty, it's Rosemary Harris, captivating as an eccentric visionary who strikes her pious neighbors as batty, but who embodies the last flickering flame of artistic freedom in her politically embattled nation.
Fugard is a dazzling wordsmith, but he's given to writing at wearying length. So it's heavy going for much of the first act, with its verbose exchanges between Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), a reclusive widow living alone in her garishly decorated home in the remote region of Karoo, and Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a young schoolteacher who has driven 800 miles from Cape Town in response to a cry for help from her elderly friend. But once all the ponderous exposition is out of the way and the big debate over Miss Helen's future is set up between the free-thinking Elsa and the puritanical Pastor Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), this 1984 play finally ignites with the passion of its ideas.
Under Gordon Edelstein's supportive helming, the show's visual design lifts some of the burden of that wordy exposition from the thesps. Miss Helen, we learn, is an outsider artist working instinctively with shiny found objects to create a garden of statues -- owls, camels, mermaids and wise men among them -- facing Mecca and representing her vision of earthly paradise. These fabulous creatures may be an affront to the whole village, but they remain out of our sight. So it falls to Michael Yeargan (set) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) to bring the glitter into Helen's home, splashing walls and ceilings with all the luscious colors of the rainbow and hanging sparkling objects everywhere. Original music by John Gromada contributes to the sense of magic.
The candles clustered on every surface are more ominous, once it comes out that Miss Helen -- who suffers from crippling arthritis and failing eyesight, and has become too fragile to cook and bathe herself properly -- recently had a house fire.
That's the cue for bossy Elsa to swing into action, dictating a practical plan to keep Miss Helen in her house and creating her art. But this is the repressive era of the 1970s, when nonconformists like Miss Helen represent a threat to the reactionary values embodied by the pastor and held by the entire community. So Marius has his excuse to swoop in and pressure his vulnerable neighbor into an old folks' home.
The power struggle between Elsa and Marius isn't exactly an even match. Gugino gives a respectable perf as the strong-willed Elsa, who worships Miss Helen for her unbridled imagination. But with repetition, Elsa's brisk exhortations to her frail friend sound shrill and insensitive.
Marius, who is initially presented as a reactionary bully, turns out to have more dimension to his character. In his subtly shaded perf, Jim Dale at first argues the pastor's case with cool logic. But the warmth in his voice -- and the conflicted feelings he expresses just by clasping and unclasping his fingers -- tell an entirely different story.
After hearing them both out, Miss Helen makes her decision about her own future, finding her voice in an ecstatic speech that Harris delivers with an incandescent flame in her eye. It's a long time coming, and for too much of the play thesp is constrained by Miss Helen's fragility. But when the moment comes, Harris lights her candles and sets the stage ablaze.