The Road to Mecca
Weathervane Productions at Z Below
Light vs. Darkness. Love vs. Trust. White vs. Black. Old vs. Young. Friendship vs. Loneliness. Acceptance vs. Prejudice. Apartheid vs. Freedom. Christian Values vs. Eastern Values.
Opposites continuously intercede, sometimes blend, and often explosively collide in Athol Fugard’s thought-provoking and emotionally laden The Road to Mecca, now in a compelling and gripping production by Weathervane Productions at Z Below. Set in the 1974, apartheid era of South Africa, the playwright bases his story on a real-life, elderly woman whose eccentric, art-centered, and recluse life in the semi-desert region of the Great Karoo was in great contrast to the conservative, Dutch Presbyterian Afrikaners of her village. That in this environment she filled her garden with scores of large, concrete statues embedded with broken glass of big-eyed owls, camels, pyramids, peacocks and the Wise Men – all facing eastward toward Mecca – and that her humble house was a palace of mirrors and candles, the life led by Miss Helen Martins becomes rich fodder for Athol Fugard to explore a host of difficult but important subjects from racism to sexism to ageism. At the same time, the playwright delves deeply to shed new light on the healing power and very real challenges of true friendship, of the artistic process, and of personal freedom to pursue a life’s dream.
A troubling letter has motivated the young teacher, Elsa Barlow, to travel 800 miles in twelve hours across dusty, desert terrain to spend just one night with Miss Helen, forty-plus years her senior but also her dearest friend. The unexpected visit both startles and delights the somewhat frail but still frisky Helen, who quickly tries to freshen up her small, cluttered abode of mirrors, candles, bottles, and a lifetime of knickknacks and memories. Elsa seems to Miss Helen to be in an unusably irritable mood at first; and there is a tug-of-war between the two of tension and tenderness.
While there are moments where the two romp about like two schoolgirls on the playground (“You’re the only person who can make me act like a fool,” Elsa admits to Miss Helen), there are mounting moments where both revelations by each of recent events raise the temperature of the room and make their close proximity seem – at least for a few uncomfortable minutes – miles apart. Miss Helen cannot understand why Elsa has jeopardized her job as a white teacher in a segregated school for students of color by asking them to write a 500-word letter to the state president on the subject of racial inequality or why she allowed herself to get involved with a married man. Elsa is exasperated that Miss Helen is allowing the local Church Council and its minister to pressure her to leave her house and its garden of 300 statues to move into the Sunshine Home for the Aged. That he is coming tonight to get her final signature is something neither wants but something Miss Helen seems incapable of stopping.
And yet, there are more closely held secrets on both parts that have yet to be revealed that complicate things much more and threaten to upend not only each one’s life but the unlikely friendship so important to each.
Both Wendy vanden Heuvel and Kodi Jackson are jaw-dropping stunning in their portrayals of Miss Helen and Elsa, respectively. With a wiry body and hair of long, silver braid, Miss Helen is at times almost like a china head doll, so delicate that it seems she might break at any moment. Then suddenly, she has the energy, animation, and playfulness of a child of ten. Next, she is profound, almost mystical, as she talks about creating her Mecca in the garden outside and the home of inside glitter and lights – a Mecca “with its own logic that even I don’t understand.” And then there are her more solemn, troubling moments, when she confesses a lifelong struggle against Darkness – something that “once again has gotten inside me and I can’t light candles there.” Through all these shifts and more, Wendy vanden Heuvel’s Miss Helen is a marvel to encounter, a force so strong and yet so vulnerable at the same time.
Elsa too is somewhat of an enigma, alternating between outwardly cross and loving toward Miss Helen and even more, toward herself. Kodi Jackson powerfully embodies a young woman who deeply feels the injustices of the world around her, who struggles if and how to help both stranger and friend, and who suffers immensely from decisions she has made and has yet to forgive herself. Her expressed emotions at times turn on a dime from one extreme to the other as she interacts with Miss Helen. Her Elsa is one moment blustering loud and stomping about in a flurry of demands. In the next, she is sullen and silent, huddled in a corner refusing to engage. How to love and to trust at the same time is her quest; even with Miss Helen, she is beginning to wonder if love and trust can ever go together.
As Athol Fugard does in his play A Lesson From Aloes, the playwright uses the first act of The Road to Mecca to allow Miss Helen and Elsa to engage in long conversations that reveal enough details to set the scene for the high drama, highly intense second act. While conversations at times in the first act are on the verge of bogging down, like in Aloes it is the introduction of a third character that lights the match for revelatory explosions to follow and for the play to begin moving like a racing car going around dangerous curves.
In this case, Helen’s long-time friend and the local minister, Marius Byleveld, arrives, surprised to find Elsa there on the evening he is hoping to obtain Miss Helen’s signature on a contract to place her in the local retirement home (run, of course, by his church). As Marius, Victor Talmadge is yet one more powerhouse in this triad of impressive cast members. His Marius is immediately amiable, likeable, and genuine of spirit. Unlike how Elsa in the first act has set him up to be a demon trying to force Miss Helen from her house because of all the village’s prejudice against her, Marius is gentle spoken with caring eyes that clearly adore Miss Helen. True, he does keep pushing a pen toward her as he also says not to sign until she is truly ready; but why he is insistent she should move is for a reason very different than Elsa imagines. Like much of the second half, the skins of the onion are quickly going to shed all around as things not said by each member of this trio come into the open, testing deep friendships and leading to new acceptances of where life is leading each.
Weathervane Production’s The Road to Mecca has offered Director Timothy Near and actors Heuvel and Talmadge a chance once again to tackle together a Fugard play as they did so successfully with A Lesson From Aloes, also at Z Below in 2018. Once again, the former Artistic Director of the much-celebrated, now defunct San Jose Repertory Theatre brings much sensitivity, insight, boldness, and even humor into her direction of this excellent cast. To keep such a wordy, rather long for only three characters play (two hours, thirty minutes with one intermission) as gripping and well-paced as she does – especially in Act Two – is a tribute to her intimate understanding of Fugard and her much-honed skills as a journeyed director.
To aid in her vision for Mecca, Timothy Near has assembled a first-class creative team. Walking into the small setting of Z Space, one is compelled to pause and peruse the many details of Miss Helen’s simple but magical house in its desert setting, as designed by Erik Flatmo and decorated by Leah Hammond. The shifting bright-to-shadow lighting designed Kurt Landisman become an artist’s pallet reflecting both a desert’s loneliness and beauty as well as a home’s warmth and candlelit enchantment. Wind chimes, buzzing insects, and occasional birds provide more environmental grounding as designed in sound by Jake Rodriguez while Meg Neville ensures the three principals are dressed to support and enhance their three, very different personalities.
All in all, South Africa’s most celebrated playwright is given full respect and a magnificent interpretation in this Weathervane Productions of his deeply engaging and moving The Road to Mecca. Kudos to the company, director, and cast for dusting off this Fugard play of the ‘80s and providing a production that still speaks volumes fifty years later.
Rating: 4.5 E
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
The Road to Mecca continues through June 30, 2023 in production by Weathervane Productions at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.zspace.org/ .
Please note: All patrons are required to wear well-fitting masks in the theatre.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne