There's a beautiful softness that bathes every artistic aspect of director Gordon Edelstein's graceful and endearing production of Athol Fugard's meditation on independence through creativity, The Road To Mecca.
The walls of Michael Yeargan's set, representing the home of an aging artist living in an isolated South African village, have the appearance of being covered in watery dyes. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting unobtrusively provides pockets on intimacy in the large, candlelit dwelling, displaying numerous creations and oddities.
And, of course, there's the exceptional company - Carla Gugino, Jim Dale and especially Rosemary Harris - giving delicate, but fully fleshed, portrayals that make for a deeply moving evening.
Written in the mid-1980s, the play is inspired by the real-life story of Helen Martins, a reclusive outsider artist who, until her death in 1976, spent the last years of her life creating glittering works from crushed glass, wire and cement; most notably over 300 statues displayed in her garden, primarily owls, pointing east. The home has been kept intact as a museum and is now a national monument known as The Owl House.
Fugard's fiction has the elderly Miss Helen (Harris) struggling with the limitations that come with aging. Her letter describing her distressed indecision about her future, sent to her younger friend, Elsa (Gugino), has prompted the Cape Town schoolteacher to make a twelve-hour drive to find out what is wrong. Their conversation, which takes up the bulk of the first act, doesn't set up a plot, but rather establishes a relationship where Elsa's affection for Miss Helen is as both a person and as a symbol of what she can do with her own life by denying the conventions put upon her sex.
Elsa is furious when the minister Marius (Dale) arrives trying to convince Miss Helen that she would be better off in a retirement home and lashes out at her friend when she hesitates to immediately refuse. Though Marius has great feelings for Miss Helen, and is concerned for her well-being, he's also concerned about how the locals regard her with suspicion and take offense at her outdoor display; works he considers blasphemous.
Perhaps it's hearing Marius' description of her statues as "monstrosities" ("Your life has become as grotesque as those creations of yours.") and Elsa's defensive, "She dared to be different," that gives Miss Helen the strength to stand by her choices. An inspiring second act speech, wondrously played with heartfelt dignity by Harris, is a tribute to those who dare to create their own paradise and live within it as they choose.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino; Bottom: Jim Dale and Rosemary Harris.
Posted on January 23, 2012 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.