The themes of light and darkness have inspired countless works of art and literature. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness came to mind frequently while watching the Roundabout Theater Company’s production of The Road to Mecca at the American Airlines Theater. Written by Athol Fugard and first performed in New York in 1988 but only receiving its Broadway premiere now, The Road to Mecca was inspired by the life and work of the South African artist Helen Martins. In this Fugard’s script, Miss Helen, played by the excellent Rosemary Harris, is facing censorship, both in her art and her life. A tale of enlightenment and education, light and dark both play major roles in both the characters and the production’s set.
Fugard is well-known for the politics of his plays, most of which are set in his native South Africa. In The Road to Mecca, Helen is visited by her friend Elsa, an urban schoolteacher and pen pal. After receiving a particularly distraught letter from Helen, Elsa drives 12 hours to the remote village of New Bethesda to come to her aid. As the two spend an evening together, secrets are shared, trust is broken and Helen is forced to face both her past and her future.
Directed by Gordon Edelstein, The Road to Mecca moves very slowly in the first act while the reasons for Helen’s letter are slowly revealed. The pace increases considerably in the second act when Marius, the local minister who wants to move Helen into a home for the aged, pays the women a visit. Imposingly played by Jim Dale, Marius provides conflict and instigates confessions, both of which heighten the drama and entertainment of the show.
It is Helen’s maddening inability to be decisive that places her in her current situation. Due to recent events, Marius and the church think she would be better off in a retirement home, but the thought of leaving her house, which she decorated with such love and care, overwhelms her with depression. Unable to stand up to Marius and say no, but also unable to bear losing her Mecca, she is caught in limbo. In the hands of a less skilled actress, Helen’s paralysis might become frustrating, but Harris plays her with such care, delicacy and authenticity that one can’t help but empathize with her.
Despite being regarded by her community as an eccentric, Harris’ Helen is anything but. Conservatively dressed and soft spoken, she does not resort to any gimmicks typical of an “artistic” character. Even though she builds strange statues on her front lawn, even though the walls of her house are covered glitter and even though the only source of light in her home comes from candles, this Helen is unassuming, quiet and, until she begins to speak for herself, often overlooked.
It is the relationship between Helen and Elsa that much of the success of The Road to Mecca depends on and with Carla Gugino delivering an extremely strong, assured performance as Elsa, the conversations between the two women are compelling. Determined, efficient and desperate to hide her vulnerability, this Elsa loves Helen more than she would like to admit. This elevates the warm moments between the two – and makes the cold ones even icier.
Along with the themes of light and dark and enlightenment and ignorance, The Road to Mecca also explores the themes of local eccentrics and the ability to find one’s voice. Scarlett O’Hara, from Gone With the Wind, came to mind, as well as Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird, along with countless other unusual characters and artists who struggle to find acceptance. It also felt fitting that before attending this performance, I had been reading articles about SOPA and other examples of censorship and copyrighting. Daring to not mourn her husband in a conventional way, daring to build unusual statues on her front lawn, and daring to decorate her home with glitter and sparkles, Helen has ostracized herself from her community. But, hearing her and Elsa speak of “the church” and the others who shun her, one has to wonder if her isolation is actually something to worry about.
One could not write a review of The Road to Mecca without mentioning the incredible lighting job by Peter Kaczorowski. Helen’s Mecca is a haven of glitter and light, and while she delivers an almost show-stopping monologue about finding her confidence and calling, as well as her independence, dozens of candles are lit onstage, symbolizing the enlightenment of the woman as well as the actual brightening of her home. But in this production it is Harris, in an understated, powerful and honest performance, who truly shines.