Saturday, January 21, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, now playing at the American Airlines Theater in New York, has a slow start that does not pick up much, if any, speed until the second act. By the end of the performance you do realize the complexity of the play, the number of issues it raises and the interesting bits that have been revealed. But by then is almost too late to enjoy the performance. True you can think about and appreciate the depth of a play and the marvels of the production well after you have seen it but it is difficult to give a performance much of a review if you were quite bored much of the time.
The play is set in a village in South Africa which one character describes as the earth without God. It comes from a quotation by Balzac who described the desert as God without mankind.

Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris) lives in that godless place. She is an old, eccentric sculptor living in a house full of ornaments with provocative examples of her creations in the front yard. She is visited by Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a friend and a teacher who drives twelve hours to Helen’s village. There is a great difference in age and Elsa always refers to the other woman as Miss Helen.

The two women who have a sometimes rough relationship talk about what they are doing now and reminisce about the past. Some of what they say is of some interest but the pace is simply soporific and the audience finds itself fighting yawns.

The pace picks up in the second act when a self-righteous pastor named Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale) arrives and tries to convince Miss Helen to leave her house and go to an old age home. Miss Helen is indeed old and at times confused. The new curtains that were mentioned in the first act were replacements of the ones that were burned when Miss Helen left some candles burning and started a fire, the good pastor reminds Elsa.

The play does cover a wide range of themes from artistic expression in a closed-minded society that ends up acting rather viciously against Miss Helen, the loss of religious faith, the treatment of blacks in South Africa and the relationship among the three friends.

Mecca is the symbol of a city of light and splendor and it is that light that Miss Helen is seeking. In a fine bit of irony, it is also the symbol of the Muslim religion in a situation where her faith has lapsed and she cannot even remember when she had her confirmation as a Christian.

Harris is one of the major talents of the modern theatre and Gugino and Dale cannot be faulted for their performances. But director Gordon Edelstein has directed the play at a pace and in a way that whatever its virtues or shortcomings, the end result is the ultimate sin in the theatre: it is boring.


The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard opened on January 17, 2012 at the American Airlines Theatre, New York in a production by Roundabout Theatre Company.

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