The Nuanced Road Taken
Sometimes a few wrong turns can balance themselves out. That seems to be the happy circumstance with Palm Beach Dramaworks' vivid revival of South African playwright Athol Fugard's domestic drama The Road to Mecca.
Although the script's sociopolitical intentions might have been unintentionally stymied in this production, director William Hayes and his talented cast seem to have discovered a deeper, better meaning to Fugard's text. Whether this was a result of inspiration or dumb luck remains a mystery; what doesn't is that Palm Beach Dramaworks clearly has a solid hit on its hands.
As with most of Fugard's plays, the story line is spare but full of conflict. In the wilds of South Africa, an aging widow, Miss Helen, lives alone in the small Afrikaner town where she grew up. The community is devoutly Protestant and profoundly traditional. But since her husband's death, Helen has grown increasingly distant from her neighbors. She has become an artist, fashioning a series of large concrete sculptures that dominates her yard and reworking her house into a work of art in itself. Her neighbors are suspicious of her new projects and begin to shun her.
The play begins when Helen's younger friend, Elsa Barlow, a fiery Cape Town schoolteacher, arrives exhausted after a daylong car trek to Helen's colorful little cottage. As darkness falls, the friends light candles, exchange pleasantries, and chatter: Helen is proud of her work but has been having some trouble looking after herself. Elsa has more than her share of romantic troubles with a married man. But soon, more dire facts emerge. Elsa has come because Helen wrote her a despairing letter that suggested the older woman was contemplating suicide. And the local minister, Marius Byleveld, is due to arrive that night on behalf of the community to urge Helen to sign a contract to move into an assisted-living facility. Elsa urges the meek Helen to resist and vows to protect her. But when Marius arrives, he's surprisingly courtly and caring. And, it turns out, Helen's fascination with candles, light, and fire has some dangerous consequences.
It's at this point that this Mecca begins to detour. Fugard, who has long spoken out for individual freedom fighting against enslaving societies, appears here to speak for Helen, who is characterized as an oppressed artist besieged by the thoughtless, narrow-minded community that surrounds her. Marius is the spokesman for the bad guys -- the conformist community -- while Elsa is the fiery freedom fighter. But several factors skew this arrangement. For starters, the play, written in 1984, shows its age: Its underlying bias toward unconventional individualism and against the pressures of community seem overly simplistic, echoing the platitudes of the 1970s. And Fugard's use of Mecca as an image of enlightenment, freedom, and feminist aspiration seems less than convincing in this age of revived Islamic fundamentalism and world-wide terror.
Still, this production finds its footing in Fugard's flawed, contradictory characters. Helen is an embattled artist, all right, but she's also a deeply troubled, possibly chemically unbalanced woman with personal demons as well as neighbors to contend with. Elsa has serious problems of her own, however, so much so that she may paper them over with political slogans. And Marius, who appears constricted by his narrow religious views, can't seem to escape or control the governing force of his life: He loves Helen, even if he can't bring himself to say so.
In all of this, director Hayes wisely doesn't try to force a point of view on any of these characters. Helen may be entranced with her art, but is it really meaningful? Is personal art mere self-indulgence if it ignores the community in which it exists? Is Elsa doing well by her older friend by refusing to see the signs of mental distress? Are Marius and the community all that bad for intervening? There's an evenhandedness to this production that raises more questions than answers, and that is certainly for the good.
The minuscule Dramaworks theater allows for an extreme actor/audience intimacy but also demands intense focus and truthful acting. And Fugard's text, while richly poetic, tends toward verbosity. Fortunately, the cast is strong, with Joanna Olsen a standout in her portrayal of Helen. Tall and rangy, Olsen adopts a meek, stooped shuffle and wavering voice to conceal a passionate if conflicted soul that takes flight in the second act, when Helen describes her vision of Mecca. In this and throughout, Olsen is thoroughly absorbing in a fine, nuanced performance.
As both her friend and nemesis, Gene Bunge is quietly effective as the kindly, repressed minister, and the relationship between these two characters is palpable -- you really can feel 20-some years of friendship. Olsen's scenes with Nanique Gheridian as Elsa are also rich and detailed, though at times Gheridian's mature strength seems at odds with what the script calls for: an inexperienced woman with more ideas than wisdom. The postage-stamp-sized set, a colorful, whimsical cottage living room designed by Hayes and decorated by Cindi Taylor, offers so much detail that it's an extension of Helen's character.
Palm Beach Dramaworks has been quietly developing its audience base and reputation for delivering solid, well-produced productions of substantial, challenging plays. After starting off with (and regularly filling) its 50-plus-seat studio theater, the company has plans to move to a nearby space more than double that size. With solid leadership and a devotion to quality, Dramaworks is clearly a valuable addition to and a likely future leader of the South Florida theater scene.
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