NEW YORK — Carla Gugino and Rosemary Harris play characters who look after one another in a new Broadway revival of Athol Fugard's play "The Road to Mecca." They look after each other off-stage as well.
The younger actress has taken to showing her affection for her venerable co-star by bringing her such treats as brownies and chocolate.
"She leaves wonderful, beautiful little dishes of food outside my door like a puppy dog," Harris, 84, coos during a joint interview in her dressing room at the American Airlines Theater. "I'll part the curtain and there's a wonderful little meal sitting there."
Gugino, 40, a star of such films as "Watchmen" and "Spy Kids," says she can't help herself. "I'm Italian and I do love food. So whatever I get for myself I just drop little things," she says. "I feel seriously protective of her."
That sentiment certainly has found its way into the performance of the play, which tells the story of a reclusive and ailing widow in 1974 rural South Africa who follows her artistic muse by creating odd sculptures.
The widow, played by Harris, finds herself the center of a tug-of-war between a local priest, played by Jim Dale, who finds her work to be idolatrous and wants to pack her off to a retirement home, and a young school teacher, played by Gugino, who cares for the elder woman, finding her inspiring and urging her to keep creating uncomfortable art.
Gugino and Harris had never met or acted together before the play and neither had ever appeared in a Fugard piece. But after attending a reading in July 2011 held by the Roundabout Theatre Company, they fell in love with a work that is ultimately about the bravery of artists.
"None of these characters are one-note," says Gugino, who was previously on Broadway in "Desire Under the Elms" in 2009 and "After the Fall" in 2004. "They surprise themselves and they surprise each other constantly throughout."
The complexity of the role — and, to be honest, the fact that the role even existed — attracted Harris, who has acted alongside Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, won a Tony Award in 1967 for "The Lion in Winter" and earned an Oscar nomination for "Tom & Viv," but may be best known as Aunt May in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" films.
"At my age, which probably isn't a secret any more, playwrights don't write parts for women octogenarians," says Harris, who was last on Broadway in "The Royal Family" with Jan Maxwell. "Even Shakespeare didn't — a few mad queens maybe and the nurse in 'Romeo and Juliet' ... but that's it. Then along comes Athol Fugard. I can't think of another part that an 84-year-old woman has this opportunity to have this incredible arc."
The two women have formed a fast friendship and Gugino seems still a bit giddy to be acting alongside a woman she has seen in black-and-white clips on YouTube acting opposite the likes of Rex Harrison and Kenneth Branagh.
"Let's make no bones about it: To be able to work with Rosemary for me is a dream on all levels," says Gugino. "Beyond just the fact that she's obviously an extraordinary actress, it's also really special to find like-minded spirits who want to jump off a cliff together."
One thing the actresses have delighted in is meeting and discussing the play with the playwright. Fugard, who is celebrating his 80th birthday with revivals of his plays in New York this year, has often stopped by to see how Gugino and Harris are doing with "The Road to Mecca."
"It was a little nerve-racking the first time," Harris says of the time Fugard watched them do a run-through in a bare rehearsal room and seemed genuinely pleased. "He didn't say, 'Get rid of them all and start again.'"
Gugino says she was struck by how open he was about the work, ready to make changes and accommodate the actresses. "I find him fearless. He's so not possessive," she says. "Every thought he has for us comes from a very true, visceral place."
Fugard's play was inspired by a real woman he knew in passing named Helen Martins, who, after an uneventful life, turned herself into an artist, covering the walls of her home with crushed glass patters and filling her yard with playful concrete sculptures of owls, sheep, camels, religious icons and imaginary beings all facing east toward Mecca. Shunned by her neighbors as crazy, she nevertheless kept working on her art until she took her own life in 1976. After languishing for decades in a state of disrepair, her home is now a popular tourist attraction, a vindication perhaps of her uniqueness.
Gugino and Harris have been helped in their research for the play by asking Fugard questions and pouring over books of Martins' art. Harris carries around a photo of the woman as inspiration.
"That's her, bless her little heart," she says, cradling the picture.
In the play, Athol pairs Martins with Gugino's adoring school teacher to explore such themes as societal pressure, artistic vision, freedom and truth, as well as new and old South Africa.
"Helen finally found someone who genuinely was in awe and loved what she was doing," Gugino says. "And my character, for the very first time, saw a woman who was really free, who gave her an example. She sees in Helen this amazing example of someone truly living her dream and it changes this younger woman's life."
One thing neither actress was able to do was get to South Africa to see the weird and wonderful art Martins left behind.
"I was too busy learning my lines to go anywhere," says Harris, laughing.
Mark Kennedy is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits