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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE ROAD TO MECCA
at American Airlines Theatre

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
By JOANNE KAUFMAN

  Jim Dale, Carla Gugino and Rosemary Harris/ Ph: Joan Marcus

This season there will be several productions to honor the 80th birthday of prolific South African playwright Athol Fugard. Leading off the festivities is the three-hander The Road to Mecca, directed by Gordon Edelstein. But with all due respect to the birthday boy, the road is long, oh so winding and only occasionally worth the journey.

An elderly Afrikaner, Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris, forever wonderful) grew up in remote New Bethesda, a dusty, desert village of narrow streets and narrow minds, and has rarely left. Long since widowed (quite happily) she lives alone, but not for a second is she lonely. She’s kept company by a rich, vivid imagination, one that finds expression in the walls she has painted in glowing colors and glitter, in the large owls and camels and human figures she has sculpted in her yard, and carefully positioned so they all point east – toward Mecca.

But as Stephen Sondheim and so many others have pointed out, art isn’t easy. Those fanciful cement creations have made Miss Helen a cynosure in mid-1970s New Bethesda. She’s feared and derided by the children, tsk-ed tsk-ed about and avoided by the adults.

Helen isn’t much concerned about the disapproving neighbors. She gets all the emotional sustenance and admiring support she needs from her close friend Elsa, a strong-minded, anti-apartheid school teacher (the very good Carla Gugino in a thankless role). The plays begins when Elsa arrives, exhausted and anxious after a 12-hour, 800-mile drive from Cape Town, all because of a disturbed and disturbing letter from Miss Helen.

And just what does that worrisome missive say? It takes until teatime – that is to say, until the end of the chunky, clunky exposition-filled first act – to find out. Fortunately there’s another pay-off just before intermission: the arrival of the village’s patronizing minister Marius Byleveld (the first rate Jim Dale), whose potato pontifications are almost worth the price of the ticket.

Marius is as eager to preserve the status quo as Elsa is to shake it up. He’s as threatened by Helen’s pagan art (he patronizingly calls it a hobby) as Elsa is exhilarated by it. He’s fighting for Miss Helen’s soul while Elsa is fighting for Miss Helen’s spirit. He wants Miss Helen to bend to his will; Elsa, in her own way at least as condescending as Marius, wants Helen to take a stand. Who wins? What with the play’s none too subtle imagery and the plot’s schematic unfolding, it’s rarely the audience.

 


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