BWW Reviews: Creede Repertory Theatre's ROAD TO MECCA - A Triumph!
Creede Repertory Theatre visits the Arvada Center with its incandescent production of THE ROAD TO MECCA. First staged in 1985 by playwright Athol Fugard, and influenced by the life and work of eccentric South African artist Helen Martins, THE ROAD TO MECCA is a journey of life and light. The show revolves around Miss Helen, who has surrounded herself with her art after the passing of her husband. When her age and competency come into question by the "caring" Reverend Byleveld, Helen's friend and admirer Elsa comes to her aid.
Quite honestly this is one of the most tender and touching shows I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. Set against the lingering backdrop of apartheid, the insightful central theme is an exploration of the debate between the constraints of religion and the freedom of creative expression. The religious Afrikaners of New Bethesda are threatened by the larger-than-life art installations that Miss Helen creates. The spiritual awakening that resulted in her leaving the parish threatens the church's ideals ("My Mecca has its own logic; even I don't understand it"), which causes Miss Helen to be ostracized by the community. At times one must ask, who is more frightened - Miss Helen or the townsfolk? The coercive tactics Reverend Byleveld's employs to convince Miss Helen to live in a nursing home makes you wonder whether he truly has her best interests in mind or if he's simply trying to squash her smoldering creative sprit to maintain the race, gender, and religious status quo. On the flip-side is Elsa, Miss Helen's no-nonsense younger friend and admirer come to rescue her from assumed despair. The story of their first meeting is enchanting and their relationship is rather a fun odd-couple, where old-world idealism meets real-world cynicism. Elsa favors a tough love approach when it comes to Miss Helen, a strategy that is at times necessary ("Your little world is not as safe as you would like to believe, Miss Helen"). But even the conflicts between the two main women characters have a genuine tenderness to them, as raw and real as any truly realistic friendship can be. There were also several wonderfully funny moments that helped break some of the tension, along with a couple of interesting twists that no one saw coming.
Director Nagle Jackson chose some of the best talent for this show. Christy Brandt as Miss Helen is exceptional, exuding the meekness and humility that her character needs at first, and the strength and resiliency that comes later. Kate Berry as Elsa wears the character's cynicism like a comfortable old cloak, and the battle with her own inner demons leads to a heartbreaking confession and ultimate catharsis. The mild-mannered yet darkly manipulative Reverend Byleveld, played capably by Logan Ernstthal, is appropriately sinister and devastatingly human, right up to that final shocking confession. The cast has chemistry and plays off each other very well, which lends authenticity to the deep character layers that slowly unfold on stage.
Scenic designer Christopher Sousa-Wynn offers a fabulous set that reminded me of a reclusive artist's abode somewhere in the southwest. This set, with all of its simple artistic touches, also helped support the authenticity of the location and the difficult times. The candles (symbolic of Helen's need for illumination and the light we all need at times to help us see our path) and the colored bottled art in the walls (perhaps repr esentative of the oppressive nature of apartheid and the denial of human diversity and creativity) were not only visually stunning, but also affecting on a gut emotional level. When all of the candles were lit, the entire stage took on an ethereal glow and there was not a dry eye in the house, including mine.
The ultimate question of THE ROAD TO MECCA is not easy (but it is simple) and it grows and glows
in the luminosity of this play's phenomenal talent and beautiful writing: What is your Mecca? Where do you find joy and a sublime, profound sense of self? In what ways do you connect to the light within and without? Creede Repertory's radiant THE ROAD TO MECCA lights up the black box of the Arvada Center now through November 6th. For tickets or information, contact the box office at 720-898-7200 or online at www.arvadacenter.org.
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