The Road to Mecca
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Joy Zinoman
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca is what I sometimes call a fruitcake play: a special treat that is dense and rich with ideas and themes, but takes a while to digest. Fortunately the fine performances at Studio Theatre help the play go down smoothly.
Helen (Tana Hicken) is an eccentric elderly widow who lives alone in a South African home that she has furnished with candles, oil lamps, mirrors, colored glass, and other knickknacks. She is an artist, and outside her home she has collected an odd array of sculptures of men and animals, all facing east towards Mecca. This collection has helped isolate her from the small town’s Christian community. It seems Helen began to have visions of the real Mecca following the death of her husband fifteen years earlier.
In the play we meet two of Helen’s few remaining friends. Elsa (Holly Twyford) is a headstrong young teacher from Cape Town who cares so much for Helen that she drives 800 miles upon receiving a desperate letter from her. As the play slowly unwinds we eventually learn that Helen recently burned herself, causing the local pastor Marius (Martin Rayner) to push her to enter a nursing home. Helen does not really want to leave her home, feeling that if her personal Mecca is finished, then so is her life. Helen wants Elsa to support her effort to resist Marius’ well-meaning efforts. Elsa has other ideas.
When Helen and Elsa spar over what Helen should do, we see two outstanding actresses at their best. Hicken’s complex Helen is believably frail and frustrated, yet possesses a degree of iconoclastic strength that makes her character compelling. Twyford’s energetic performance as Elsa veers between compassion and indignant anger, emotions arising out of her character’s personal circumstances.
While Rayner’s Marius is similarly layered and nuanced as a man who is traditional and somewhat patronizing, decent and compassionate. his feelings for Helen are one of the few emotional aspects of the production that doesn’t feel real.
The play is set in 1974 apartheid South Africa and hits on a variety of conflicts ranging from the political to the intensely personal. The play’s themes include freedom of the human spirit in a society which imposes isolation on individuals who are creative or different, the need for personal independence at different ages of life, and ultimately the liberating power of art.
The light inside of Helen burns brightest when she talks about her home and her heart. At such moments we understand why Elsa, from a different age and background, has such strong feelings for this woman. Helen’s increasing age is making it harder for her to function both in practical living and as a practicing artist and the audience becomes deeply invested in whether she could or should adapt to a diminished world in a caretaking institution.
The home itself is almost a character in the play. Debra Booth’s set design is memorably idiosyncratic and ultimately beautiful. This production is one of those rare cases where I lingered by the stage to study the detailed set and appreciate the artistry of the composition.
While The Road to Mecca is not quite as captivating as last year’s season opener from Athol Fugard (My Children! My Africa!), Joy Zinoman has produced another memorable work that is a recommended for theatergoers who appreciate the power of ideas and great individual performances.
Running Time: 2:25 (one intermission).
Where: Mead Theatre within Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW.
When: Tuesdays through Sundays until October 19. Sunday shows are at 7, all other evening shows are at 8. Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2.
Tickets: $34-$61. For tickets, call 202.332.3300 or visit the website.