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Saturday, 21 January 2012 14:44

Broadway Review: THE ROAD TO MECCA

Written by
Rosemary Harris (l) and Carla Gugino Rosemary Harris (l) and Carla Gugino Photo: Joan Marcus

The Road to Meccais a long, tedious one.  As directed by Gordon Edelstein, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Athol Fugard’s 1987 play is a dirge.  Despite the presence of two theatrical heavyweights, Rosemary Harris and Jim Dale, this slow and meandering piece doesn’t begin to get interesting until about two thirds of the way through the second act.

{module ad_left_body}The "road" to Mecca in this case is a statuary garden outside the home of Miss Helen (Harris), a woman in her early 70s for whom time has begun to take its toll. This statuary has given her an outsider status among the residents of the Karoo village of New Bethesda, South Africa where she lives. The creation of this garden was a cause she took up after the passing of her husband and has turned into the driving force in her life.  

Elsa, played by Carla Gugino arrives at the top of the play in response to a note that she has received from Miss Helen. In the note, Miss Helen alludes to depression, sending Elsa on a hurried 12 hour car ride from Cape Town in the midst of finals (she’s a professor).  We spend much of the first act trying to figure out what Elsa’s relationship is to Miss Helen.  This never seems to be particularly clear beyond a young girl who wandered by one day and was smitten with her garden.

It quickly becomes apparent that Miss Helen may no longer be capable of living alone. A singed windowsill and new curtains, as well as burns on Miss Helen’s hands, indicate that candles she left burning had gotten out of control.  She tries to attribute the burns on her hands to creating a prickly-pear syrup for Elsa.  

Miss Helen’s friend Katrina (whom we don’t meet), a black woman with a baby and a drunkard for a husband, is the only one who looks in on Miss Helen.  The exception to this seems to be the Dominee from Miss Helen’s church (which she long ago left), Marius (Dale).  Elsa isn’t the only one worried for Miss Helen.  For most of the play we’re given the impression that Marius has ulterior motives in trying to get Ms. Helen to move into a seniors residence.  He has brought her an application to the facility that she is expected to sign.  It is obvious that Ms. Helen’s depression and angst has arisen from the pressure Marius has been putting on her.  We originally side with Elsa in thinking that something darker is at play here, when in fact it just seems Marius is looking out for her.

Athol Fugard’s traditional theme of apartheid is present in The Road to Mecca.  His treatment of the topic is subtle in this case and takes a backseat to Miss Helen’s story. It comes up in the discussion of a possible new bottle store in New Bethesda and the impact it might have on the black community.  More importantly it comes up in the way the white members of the community don’t think to ask the black members of the community how it might affect them.  It comes up in the form of a hitchhiking single mother who Elsa picks up on the way to New Bethesda.  The woman’s husband has just died and the “‘Baas’ told her to pack-up and leave the farm.”  She is left to travel 80 miles to try and find family who might give her shelter. These are merely sidelines in this overly long and wordy play that clocks in at a hefty two hours and forty minutes.

The inside of her home, as designed by scenic designer Michael Yeargan, and colorfully lit by Peter Kaczorowski, is a testament to Miss Helen’s love for color and light. Her artistic nature is on display on the walls inside her house which are painted beautifully streaked purples and yellows and oranges inlaid with broken pieces of glass to create glitter. At the top of the play we see late afternoon sunlight streaking through the windows. It all too quickly turns to night and we then rely on a couple of lit candles. This sets a somber and subdued tone.  Later in the play during one of Miss Helen’s monologues, as she begins to talk about the discovery of her new life after the death of her husband, she instructs Elsa to begin lighting candles around the room. At this point, the room, and Ms. Harris, are brilliant.

The Road to Mecca premiered at the National Theatre in London before coming to the Spoleto Festival in Aspen in 1987.  It went on to win the 1988 New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Foreign Play.  In 1992 it was turned into a movie co-directed by, and starring Fugard as Marius and Kathy Bates. The Road to Mecca seems a tepid vehicle for such theater legends as Rosemary Harris and Jim Dale.  It doesn’t give either a real opportunity to shine.

Last modified on Saturday, 21 January 2012 14:58