Wednesday, February 1, 2012

theatre review THE ROAD TO MECCA, Broadway, January 21

Athol Fugard's 1984 play The Road to Mecca is finally having it's Broadway debut this month after premiering off Broadway in New York back in the late 80's.  Inspired by the true story of a woman that Fugard heard about and saw a couple of times but never actually spoke to, The Road to Mecca is set in a small town in South Africa in 1974.  It is the story of Miss Helen, a woman in her 70's who is somewhat of an oddity and how her neighbors and the rest of the town believes it would be best for her, and the community, if she moved out of her house and into a Christian home for the elderly.

Miss Helen is a free spirit, an independent woman who lives alone and who over the years has created hundreds of large sculptures out of odd objects and has planted them all over her yard in front of her colorful house.  So the recommendation to move her into the elderly home is really a question about what is best for Miss Helen vs what is best for a community who sees her house and yard as an eyesore.

Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino
Rosemary Harris is Miss Helen and I can't imagine anyone giving a better performance than Harris does.  She perfectly plays the range of emotions that come with someone who might be starting to forget things, who realized that she just might be somewhat of a danger to herself and facing the fear of possibly being forced out of her home, which is really her sanctuary.  She is wonderfully balanced in the part by Carla Gugino.  Gugino is Elsa, a young school teacher who is an old friend of Helen's and who has come for a short visit once she receives a troubling letter from Helen.  And while at times Miss Helen is a mother figure to Elsa the roles reverse several times throughout the play to the point of where you truly see why these woman are connected to each other and how they both truly need the other to survive.  Gugino can be just as feisty as Harris is, but we soon come to realize that she has just as many problems to deal with as Helen does.  Gugino is one of those actresses that has been good in everything we've seen her in.  This is her third Roundabout Theatre Company show.

Jim Dale is the Reverend Marcus who's church oversees the retirement home as well as he is a friend of Helen's.  He truly believes he is doing what is right for her, by almost making the decision to move into the home for her, but there are also underlying emotions between Helen and Marcus as well.  While Dale is known for his comical roles, his work here is beautifully understated, nuanced and lacking any comical notes, all of which round out and deepen the part he is playing.

Jim Dale, Carla Gugino and Rosemary Harris
All the figures Mill Helen created were mainly religious icons and they all face East- toward Mecca, hence the name of the play.  And while she might appear to be a recluse she is still extremely passionate about things, and Harris instills a fierce passion into her performance as well.  This is a three character play of words and emotions with a slow beginning and middle that builds to a completely riveting and luminous last third.  Harris and Dale have an encounter toward the end of the play that is one of the best acted pieces I've seen in many years of theatre going.  Director Gordon Edlestein and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski have created an amazingly theatrical moment where the entire stage becomes alive with color, emotion and light.   During this monologue by Miss Helen, Dale does some of the best acting I've ever seen with barely saying a word.   Two theatre legends giving two truly memorable performances.

Fugard's play is very interesting in how it focuses on the treatment of the elderly by those around them as if they are second class citizens while taking place in a setting that deals remotely with apartheid and the fight of black South Africans for their freedom.  The focus on one with the underlying current of the other is an interesting metaphor.  It was extremely interesting seeing The Road to Mecca just one week after seeing the new play The Convert as they are both set in South Africa but deal with completely different, but similar issues of religion and political unrest even though they are set 80 years apart.

Miss Helen's "Owl House" became a National Monument in the small town of Nieu Bethesda.  The Road to Mecca is playing through March 4th.

Official Show Website

Highlights from the show:

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