In a desolate Karoo village, three characters — two Afrikaners and one English South African — play out a timeless battle: small-minded fears versus artistic flights of freedom. Anthol Fugard’s powerful examination of destiny, love and race, set against the backdrop of 1974 South Africa, is a potent reminder that the dramas of daily life can fuel exhilarating theater.
Now at the American Airlines Theater, the Roundabout’s revival of The Road To Mecca is a beautifully staged and acted drama. It opens in Miss Helen’s (Rosemary Harris) home – awash in red paint and glitter. This warm abode houses a sweet, understated elderly woman, known for her massive cement lawn sculptures of owls, camels and people, all pointing east. Miss Helen is passionate about her work, which began, tellingly, on the death of her husband.
But art is isolating; the village children mock her “monsters,” as does Marius Byleveld (spot-on Jim Dale), the reactionary minister who worries about Miss Helen’s fragile health. He tries to persuade her to enter an old age home, a prospect bitterly contested by Elsa (a wonderful Carla Gugino), a fiery young teacher and Miss Helen’s closest friend. Yet Elsa is frustrated by Helen’s presumed passivity; her anger is that curious blend of affection and irritation. <img alt="2012-01-22-RoadToMecca.jpg" src="http://images.huffingtonpost.com/2012-01-22-RoadToMecca.jpg" width="250" height="210" style="float: right; margin:10px"
The battle for Miss Helen's future is really a provocative discussion of power and paralysis. Elsa champions racial equality and individual determination, which pits her against the establishment. Miss Helen, rendered with extraordinary restraint and grace by Harris, celebrates creativity — even if she is radically misunderstood. She, to the consternation of Marius and the respect of Elsa, has found her mecca — an exotic, colorful, solitary oasis of hope.
Fugard has written a story of love, in various permeations. (He based Miss Helen on the real Helen Martins, whose Owl House is now a museum.) The loneliness of the dispossessed is juxtaposed with the frustrations of the well intentioned.
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