The Road to Mecca

Mad Cow's sparkling production of a play about the nature of personal freedom

The Road to Mecca
Photo by Tom Hurst

Athol Fugard, South Africa's most eminent playwright, is mostly known for his polemic dramas about race and politics during his country's apartheid era. Plays like The Blood Knot, Master Harold and the Boys, Tsotsi and many more are stark depictions of the human carnage caused by South Africa's years of repressive and violent racial policies.

The Road to Mecca, currently playing at the Mad Cow Theatre's Black Box performance space, is a major departure from Fugard's more familiar works. While there are still a few allusions to the state of the nation circa 1974, this play is more concerned with examining notions about personal, artistic and religious – rather than political – freedom, zeroing in on the things that artists gain and give up in order to be true to their vision.

Mecca is based on the real-life story of Helen Elizabeth Martins, an elderly Afrikaner woman living in a tiny village in a remote region of South Africa. In her late 40s, Martins began an artistic quest to transform her lonely, bleak environment into a personal expression of her inner "little girl." She covered the walls of her house with crushed glass and layers of colored paint to reflect the desert light, and created a sculpture garden in her front yard, filling it with figures from different religious and literary sources, all facing east – the direction of Mecca. But the bizarre nature of her artwork and the physical and emotional toll it takes on her – for one thing, the ground glass causes her eyesight to deteriorate – begins to isolate her from the other villagers, who not only question her ability to take care of herself, but begin to doubt her sanity as well.

Into Miss Helen's abode comes Elsa Barlow, a 30-something teacher from the relatively modern and sophisticated world of Cape Town. Barlow has her own demons, but she has driven 800 kilometers to Nieu Bethesda on a mission: Marius Byleveld, Helen's friend and pastor, wants Helen to move into an old-age home and return to the church. Elsa wants Helen to remain free and self-sufficient.

The Road to Mecca is not a perfect play. The first act is merely a long series of expository character revelations; it's only by the second act that we get to witness the arguments among the three characters regarding Helen's fate. What saves the evening from Fugard's missteps are the excellent performances turned in by director Aradhana Tiwari's superb acting ensemble.

Ginger Lee McDermott reveals the shattered woman-child beneath Elsa's forceful, hard-bitten exterior, just as Robin Olson reveals Helen's inner strength, too often covered by layers of fear and self-doubt. And Joe Candelora makes Marius both sympathetic and devious as he attempts to soft-sell Helen into giving up her home.

While set designer Lisa Buck created a beautiful room, a most important visual element was left out: The powdered glass covering the walls of Helen's home supposedly reflects light in a most spectacular way, but there are no walls to speak of in the set. The discrepancy between what the audience sees and what the characters discuss is rather strange. However, the trio of Candelora, McDermott and Olson make The Road to Mecca an extremely watchable production – one that is worthy of Mad Cow's spiffy new home.

The Road to Mecca

through Nov. 11
Mad Cow Theatre
54 W. Church St.


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