BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Perhaps best known for “Master Harold and the Boys,” Athol Fugard has written many worthy dramas confronting apartheid and racial issues in his native South Africa but “The Road to Mecca” (1988) is not one of them.
Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival, which opened Tuesday at American Airlines Theater, reveals a play that debates the right of artists to fearlessly do or express whatever they please. So it certainly is a fitting piece with which to initiate a series of Fugard works being staged this year in New York in honor of his 80th birthday.
“The Road to Mecca” is not an especially good play dramaturgically, however, since it is weighted down by a tedious first act that rather ponderously explicates the situation in a remote village in South Africa, where the elderly Miss Helen resides in 1974.
In her widowhood, Helen has been sculpting oddball concrete and glass figures – mermaids, wise men – that she arranges in her yard and calls her “Mecca.” The conservative townspeople think she’s batty. Now the local minister, who happens to be an old chum, wants to move the possibly failing Helen to a retirement home. A younger friend, Elsa, arrives to encourage Helen not to sign away her existence.
The second act has its clunky aspects but Fugard’s arguments upon artistic freedom fuse with imagery of darkness and light to deliver an uplifting message about the necessity for people to stay independent.
This thoughtful if somber drama receives a smooth, solid production from director Gordon Edelstein that greatly benefits from Michael Yeargan’s beautiful set for the reclusive Helen’s shabby bungalow. Painted in rich shadings of color and flecked with mirror fragments, these deep, dim, high-ceilinged rooms glint and twinkle as sunset fades into candlelit night, courtesy of Peter Kaczorowski’s lovely design.
These highly evocative visuals, so appropriate for a play about beauty, suggest the look of the intimate Broadway dramas designed by the late, great Ben Edwards in his 1950s-60s prime. Incidentally, Helen’s sculpture garden is never revealed, which wisely leaves her dubious artistry to the viewer’s imagination.
The show’s other major glow radiates from Rosemary Harris’ typically radiant performance as Helen. Somehow the veteran Broadway star, who made her New York debut in Moss Hart’s “The Climate of Eden” back in 1952, appears almost too young to portray her whimsical 70-year-old character. Harris’s understated portrait quietly suggests that Helen simply is more distracted than delusional, more careless than eccentric. Designer Susan Hilferty, perfect as usual in helping to delineate a character through their clothes, dresses Helen a bit untidily but prettily in a cardigan the color of heaven.
The thankless part of Elsa, an unhappy firebrand forever seeking a furnace, is shouldered by Carla Gugino, who is fairly tiresome. (It’s a shame that Roundabout could not persuade Harris’s marvelous daughter, Jennifer Ehle, to support her mom in the show.) Hopefully, Roundabout will provide the gifted Gugino with a juicy starring role in the future for her acting pains here.
If memory serves, Jim Dale’s gently-spoken but anxious depiction of the kindly minister registers as a far more compassionate soul than Fugard himself, who appeared in the original Off Broadway premiere and was mighty dour about it.
Travelling “The Road to Mecca” is rocky at first, but the scenery is outstanding and the outcome proves to be worthy of the journey.
“The Road to Mecca” continues through March 4 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.