January 21, 2012

"The Road to Mecca" is a Long, Slow Trip

There are some plays that you out-and-out love.  And then there are others that you feel you ought to admire.  The latter is the way I feel about Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, which opened this week at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre.

I mean how can you not admire Fugard? The white South African playwright founded a multiracial theater in his homeland back in 1958 right as the country's racially segregationist  policies were solidifying. 

Over the years he’s written more than two dozen plays, including such acclaimed works about the cruelties of the apartheid system as Master Harold…and the Boys, Boesman and Lena and Blood Knot, which will kick off the season-long retrospective that Signature Theatre is doing to celebrate Fugard’s 80th birthday this year.

 And who doesn’t admire Rosemary Harris? Over the past seven decades (she’s currently celebrating the 60th anniversary of her Broadway debut) Harris has appeared in, and won raves for, her work including nine Tony nominations (she won for the original 1966 production of The Lion in Winter) and five Drama Desk Awards. And now, at 84, she is giving as present and luminous a performance as she ever did (click here to read a profile about her).

And yet, I had to fight to keep from falling asleep during the first act of The Road to Mecca, which, at least as directed by Gordon Edelstein, moves at as deliberate and solemn a pace as a State of the Union speech: there may be good and important stuff in it and maybe even some flights of poetic language but you can’t wait for the thing to end (click here to read the director’s take on the show).

A three-hander in which all the characters are white, The Road to Mecca deals less overtly with race than some of Fugard’s other plays. But its subject is still the cost of being different in an intolerant society.

Fugard based the play on the real-life story of Helen Martins, an Afrikaner woman who, in middle-age, alienated her rural churchgoing neighbors when she began to create a garden full of whimsical glass and concrete sculptures that she called her Mecca (click here to read more about her).

Harris plays Miss Helen, as the character is called, and Carla Gugino, another gifted actress, plays her only friend Elsa, a liberal young school teacher who lives 12 hours away in Cape Town. The play opens as Elsa arrives for a surprise visit in response to a letter she’s received from her friend, who is aging, despondent and fearing an approaching darkness. 

But not much happens until Jim Dale arrives as the town’s minister. His appeal to Helen to give up her art and return to the church sets off a battle for her soul. That perks things up a bit but it all involves a lot of talk (the play runs two-and-a-half hours) as each character lays out his or her case.  And the talk seemed to go on and on and on.  Judging from the light snoring I heard the night my friend Ann and I saw the show, I wasn't the only one dozing off.

Maybe attention spans have simply grown shorter over the past 24 years since The Road to Mecca first played off-Broadway, with Fugard himself in the role of the minister.  Or maybe we just think less reverently about artists now that their success is toted up more in dollars and sense than in dedication and an independent spirit.

It’s no spoiler to say that art triumphs in The Road to Mecca.  But the ending of the real-life Miss Helen’s story may be more telling.  She committed suicide by swallowing a mixture of caustic soda and crushed glass. Her home is now a major tourist attraction.

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