Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Road to Mecca

Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George, portrays the artist’s overpowering need for self-expression. I was reminded of his song from that show “Children and Art” when I saw the Broadway premiere of Althol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, which if it were a musical could rename the song “Aging and Art” to sum up its story of a South African woman in a remote village who loses her traditional faith but finds her artistic voice -- and her freedom -- in her declining years.

Gordon Edelstein directs this 1985 work, which is brilliantly acted by Rosemary Harris as Miss Helen, the 70-year-old reclusive sculptor, Carla Gugino (photo, center) as Elsa Barlow, her 31-year-old school teacher friend, Jim Dale as Pastor Marius Byleveld, the elderly country minister who seeks to control Helen’s future. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production is at the American Air Lines Theatre through March 4.

Set in 1974 in the dusty, remote Karoo of South Africa, the play opens with Elsa’s arrival at Miss Helen’s eclectic cottage, a visual delight with its walls all of different colors and covered in glitter and mirrors that magically reflect the multitude of candles Elsa lights at the end. (Congrats to set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski.) Elsa has driven 12 hours straight from her home in Cape Town, concerned over a recent letter from her friend in which Helen expressed suicidal despair.

As it turns out, she will not be the only one checking in on Helen that day. Marius has been pressuring Helen to give up her home and her “hobby,” as he calls her artwork, to move into a church-run senior citizen residence, the Sunshine Home for the Aged. In the 15 years Helen has been a widow, she has not attended church, although she had sat by her husband’s side in worship for years. This distresses Marius, but a religious vision on the night of her husband’s funeral led Helen to her more personal spiritual path.

Helen’s Mecca, which she calls “the only reason I’ve got for being alive,” is in sharp contrast to the conservative values of the church and the community. It consists of large cement and wire figures of camels, pyramids, owls with old motorcar headlights for eyes, and dozens of Wise Men, all pointed East. These creations disgust the villagers, who regard Helen as a mad woman, and frighten their children, but Helen interacts with none of them, content with her own world, which to her is more alive than the human one that surrounds her cottage. (We never see these figures, which we’re told occupy most of Helen’s property.)

“This is the best of me, Elsa,” she says. “This is what I really am. Forget everything else. Nothing, not even my name or my face, is me as much as those Wise Men and their camels traveling to the East, or the light and glitter in this room.”

And so Elsa confronts Marius with the reason she thinks he has for insisting Helen abandon her home and vocation -- because she had never resigned herself “to being the meek, churchgoing little widow you all expected her to be. Instead she did something which small minds and small souls can never forgive . . . she dared to be different! Which does make you right about one thing, Dominee. Those statues out there are monsters. And they are that for the simple reason that they express Helen’s freedom. Yes, I never thought it was a word you would like. I’m sure it ranks as a cardinal sin in these parts. A free woman! God forgive us!”

What repels Marius and the church and village folk is what attracts Elsa.

“She challenges me, Dominee,” she says. “She challenges me into an awareness of myself and my life, of my responsibilities to both that I never had until I met her.”

She felt this the moment she accidentally first encountered Helen’s Mecca.

“One dusty afternoon five years ago, when I came walking down that road hoping for nothing more than to get away from the flies that were driving me mad, I met the first truly free spirit I have ever known.”

But Marius is unconvinced, and believes the sculptures, which he at first thought were just a harmless result of Helen’s loneliness, had become a form of idolatry that replaced her faith.

“I only began to feel uneasy about it all that first Sunday you weren’t in church,” he says. “The moment I stood up there in front of the congregation, I knew your place was empty. But even then, you see, I thought you were sick. After the service I hurried around here, but instead of being in bed there you were outside in the yard making yet another . . . (At a loss for words) I don’t really know what to call them.”

Helen, who has appeared to shrink between the opposing forces of Marius and Elsa, finds her voice, telling Marius that missing church that first Sunday wasn’t something she did lightly.

“You don’t break the habit of a lifetime without realizing that your life will never be the same again. I was already dressed and ready! I had my Bible and hymnbook, I was on the point of leaving this room as I had done every Sunday for as long as I could remember . . . but I knew that if I did, I would never make that owl. . . I think I also knew that if I didn’t, that if I put aside my Bible and hymnbook, took off my hat and changed my dress and went to work . . . Yes! That was my very first owl!”

She tells Marius she had lost her faith long before, and going “obediently” to church with her husband was a lie.

“Do you know what the word ‘God’ looks like when you’ve lost your faith,” she asks. “It looks like a little stone, a cold, round, little stone. ‘Heaven’ is another one, but it’s got an awkward, useless shape, while ‘Hell’ is flat and smooth. All of them -- damnation, grace, salvation -- a handful of stones.”

As we learn, though, Marius is concerned with more than just Helen’s soul. A number of incidents have occurred that make it questionable whether Helen really should be living alone. What is undetermined is who must make the decision for her future -- Marius, Elsa or Helen herself.

I’m surprised The Road to Mecca is only now making it to Broadway. I saw the Off-Broadway premiere in 1988, with Fugard in the role of Marius (he also directed) and the antiapartheid actress Yvonne Bryceland, who was his muse for 23 year, as Miss Helen. Amy Irving played Elsa. I was moved by that production and was once again by the current one. (Bryceland and Fugard reprised their performances for the film of version in 1991, just a few months before her death.)

Fugard turns 80 this year and is currently resident playwright of Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company’s 2012 season. Most of his plays deal with the evils of apartheid in his native South Africa, although that theme is only touched upon in Mecca.

His character of Helen is based on the career of Helen Elizabeth Martins, who lived in the village where Fugard bought a home in 1974. The town folks told him about her sculptures and said she was crazy.

“I obviously couldn’t resist the temptation of strolling in the direction of her house and seeing Miss Helen’s ‘Mecca’ for the first time,” he said in an interview with Theater magazine. “She was still alive at that point but had become virtually a total recluse. So, apart from seeing her in the distance once or twice, and nodding at her when she was among her statues and I happened to be walking past, I never got to know her personally.”

Two years after he moved to the village she committed suicide by drinking lye. Although he had been intrigued by her, he hadn’t felt called to model a character after her until Bryceland pointed out that he had written many marvelous roles for women, but that he had never put two of them together.

“And I suddenly registered for the first time that although I had created an interesting gallery of women’s portraits over the years, I’d never put two women together on a stage as the focus of the whole event.”

While he was considering this, he learned that Miss Helen had developed one close friendship in the last years of her life, with a young woman who was a social worker in Cape Town. That crystalized it for him, although he would take liberties in telling the story; he did not want to create a documentary.

“Because of my respect for Miss Helen the young woman gave me, as a gesture, a little memento of the occasion when we met -- a photograph of herself and Miss Helen,” he said in the magazine interview. “I took one look at the photograph -- it’s a brilliant, beautiful photograph -- and there was the play.”

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