NEW YORK — This year is playwright Athol Fugard's 80th birthday and the first production in New York to be mounted in the honor of this South African trailblazer is, appropriately enough, about the bravery of artists.
The Roundabout Theatre Company's somewhat sleepy but still satisfying production of "The Road to Mecca" opened Tuesday at the American Airlines Theater featuring Carla Gugino, Jim Dale and the luminous Rosemary Harris.
"It grows on you," Harris' character says at the beginning of the play. She's talking about the small South African village where the action is set, but she might as well be describing the piece itself, which really only gets going in Act 2.
Fugard's play was inspired by a real woman he knew in passing named Helen Martins, who, after an uneventful life, turned herself into a driven 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.
Fugard puts Miss Helen in the center of a tug-of-war. On one side is Pastor Marius Byleveld, a local priest played by Dale, who finds the widow's work to be idolatrous and wants to pack her off to a church retirement home. On the other side is Elsa, a young school teacher from Cape Town played by Gugino, who has arrived to care for the elder woman, finding her inspiring and urging her to keep creating uncomfortable art.
Under Gordon Edelstein's straightforward direction, Harris plays the widow as a doddering old lady who seems paralyzed by the choice before her at the beginning — should I stay or should I go? — but gradually shakes off her passivity over the course of the play and delivers a rather wonderful speech about why she is driven to create the art she does.
"I had as little choice over all that has happened as I did over the day I was born," she declares with Harris' eyes blazing with fire, as always bringing dignity to her part. "They say mad people can't tell the difference between what is real and what is not. I can."
Michael Yeargan's idiosyncratic set shows only the inside of Miss Helen's home, which is a bizarre but warm space, the walls crudely painted with beautiful hues of blue and red and crushed glass accents glinting like glitter. The odd sculptures she has been busy making are not shown — a clear statement that what they actually look like matters less than what they stand for. The set is also made alive by Peter Kaczorowski's fading sunlight and later filled by candle light.
Gugino plays Elsa as a sophisticated, Balzac- and Camus-reading woman with a restless edge — a woman who is being eaten away by the guilt of being a liberal white South African during apartheid. She returns again and again to her story of picking up a hitchhiking black woman carrying a baby for miles. She's haunted by the woman's plight for both personal and political reasons, which become clear at the end.
The two women have an interesting relationship that's akin to the push-pull of a mother-daughter dynamic. Elsa is an impatient revolutionary in comparison to the more live-and-let-live Miss Helen, illustrating the divide between urbanized, English-speaking South Africans and rural Afrikaners (though their uneven accents sometimes get in the way of clarity.) Both women haven't been completely honest with each other and must learn to trust again.
Their relationship is tested by the appearance of the pastor, who is wonderfully conceived by Dale in a part that has been played by the playwright himself. Dale's pastor is clearly the villain here and he is played to the unctuous, fussy hilt, and yet he is hardly cartoonish. Dale almost steals the show — if it wasn't for Harris up there, too, he'd sneak home with the play.
The pastor slowly reveals his religious objections to the art — he calls them "cement monstrosities" — and his concern for an elderly woman who may be unsafe living alone. "Your life has become as grotesque as those creations of yours out there," he tells her. That only provokes Elsa more and she shoots back, somewhat unsubtly: "Those statues out there are monsters. And they are that for the simple reason that they express Helen's freedom."
The face-off between Elsa and the pastor has been a long time in coming — Act 1 drags on way too long simply to establish the jeopardy Miss Helen is in. The play then has a hard time deciding how to end after Miss Helen has taken the stage for her grand soliloquy, a manifesto for any artist to defy convention.
Before the curtain goes down, Valiums have been handed out — on stage, not off. But with all that candlelight, talk over cups of tea and a heartwarming conclusion, it might seem as if those calming pills were supplied with the tickets.