There is no doubt or should be little argument that Athol Fugard is and remains the most eloquent, impassioned, and universally admired of South African dramatists. Although “The Road to Mecca” is longer than it needs to be (two and one-half hours), extremely verbose, and may not rank among the very best in the Fugard canon, it has an emotionally stirring core that makes it worthy of revival and of the stellar cast that is currently bringing it to life. Originally produced Off Broadway in 1988, it is getting its first Broadway production courtesy of the Roundabout Theater Company by special arrangement with Off Broadway’s Signature Theater, which is presenting an entire season devoted to Fugard’s plays.
First presented in the United States at Yale in 1984 with the author himself as director and in the role of the minister (tasks he repeated in the Off-Broadway production) this production of “The Road to Mecca,” under the sensitive direction of Gordon Edelstein, is made a special event given that “luminous” Rosemary Harris (stealing from the adjective that is also used to describe her character, Miss Helen, the reclusive sculptress), is playing one of the play’s three confrontational characters and the one most likely to win your affection and admiration. Jim Dale gives a notable performance as the minister, the play’s well-meaning provocateur. Carla Gugino is very fine as Elsa Barlow, the Capetown teacher and Helen’s devoted younger friend.
If Fugard’s more famous plays such as “The Blood Knot,” “A Lesson from Aloes,” and “Master Harold . . . and the Boys,” dwelt more overtly on the relentless power of apartheid to quell the human spirit, “The Road to Mecca” is more aligned with the power of the human spirit to transcend any and all adversity. We never see Helen’s unpopular and fearful-looking cement creations that she has built in her garden and have alienated her from her neighbors. But to the nearly 70-year-old Miss Helen, her urge to sculpt oddly didn’t begin until her husband’s death 15 years ago. Her sculpture has become for her the equivalent of an aesthetic pilgrimage to Mecca, and as such, according to the villagers, demonically inspired.
The core of the play deals with the pull and tug between Elsa (Gugino), a woman in awe of Miss Helen’s indomitable fortitude, and Marius Byleveld (Dale), the self-righteous minister who would like to coerce Miss Helen into an old age home.
The play begins in a leisurely fashion, in spite of Elsa’s harangues and accusations (“you’re a genuine Karoo nutcake”), endearingly co-mixed with Miss Helen’s childlike evasions, as these two women become linked in a warming, empowering friendship. Despite the enveloping nightfall (artfully achieved by lighting designer Peter Kaczorowsky) that could, if you let it (and don’t), induce a little drowsiness, the pace begins to bristle with the arrival of the minister, whose arguments, although zealously altruistic and even condescending, are not without either merit or of a more personal design.
Harris, who has succeeded in making her every movement a joy since she first appeared on Broadway in 1952 (“The Climate of Eden”), opens the play scampering about her modest home in a small Karoo village of New Bethesda, South Africa. It is 1974. Helen is hastily getting things in order for a mostly unexpected visit from Elsa. It is obvious that the hand-crafted bric-a-brac, small sculptures and collected objets d’art that fill every shelf, nook, and cranny may be mostly her creations, just as she can also be seen unmistakably as her own expressive creation — a vision with unfussy white hair, poorly hemmed slacks, and loose-fitting outerwear.
A late-blooming sculptress, Helen, as we soon discover, has found a rather poignant level of truth, one that is bound to be at odds even with those who care about her. Gugino has a firm handle on a role that teeters at times on the side of abrasiveness, but is quite moving in Miss Helen’s defense and even heartbreaking later as she recalls an incident on the road with an African woman and her baby. Theater veteran Dale (Tony award for “Barnum”) is splendid in bringing the Afrikaner to the peak of self-serving stoicism even as he allows us to see below his facade. The delicate use of glitter and the more profuse use of candlelight enhance designer Michael Yeargan’s masterful, meant-to-be-eccentric, set. Who’s to say that “The Road to Mecca” can’t be paved with glittering clutter? **
“The Road to Mecca,” through Sunday, March 4, American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. $67 to $117. 212-719-1300.