On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Athol Fugard deserves a retrospective. Which is what this distinguished South African playwright, director, actor and social activist will receive as resident playwright for the Signature Theater Company’s inaugural season in its new home — but Roundabout gets in the first tribute with this respectful revival of the scribe’s most personal drama, “The Road to Mecca.” If anyone is Broadway royalty, it’s Rosemary Harris, captivating as an eccentric visionary who strikes her pious neighbors as batty, but who embodies the last flickering flame of artistic freedom in her politically embattled nation.
Fugard is a dazzling wordsmith, but he’s given to writing at wearying length. So it’s heavy going for much of the first act, with its verbose exchanges between Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), a reclusive widow living alone in her garishly decorated home in the remote region of Karoo, and Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a young schoolteacher who has driven 800 miles from Cape Town in response to a cry for help from her elderly friend. But once all the ponderous exposition is out of the way and the big debate over Miss Helen’s future is set up between the free-thinking Elsa and the puritanical Pastor Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), this 1984 play finally ignites with the passion of its ideas.
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Under Gordon Edelstein’s supportive helming, the show’s visual design lifts some of the burden of that wordy exposition from the thesps. Miss Helen, we learn, is an outsider artist working instinctively with shiny found objects to create a garden of statues — owls, camels, mermaids and wise men among them — facing Mecca and representing her vision of earthly paradise. These fabulous creatures may be an affront to the whole village, but they remain out of our sight. So it falls to Michael Yeargan (set) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) to bring the glitter into Helen’s home, splashing walls and ceilings with all the luscious colors of the rainbow and hanging sparkling objects everywhere. Original music by John Gromada contributes to the sense of magic.
The candles clustered on every surface are more ominous, once it comes out that Miss Helen — who suffers from crippling arthritis and failing eyesight, and has become too fragile to cook and bathe herself properly — recently had a house fire.
That’s the cue for bossy Elsa to swing into action, dictating a practical plan to keep Miss Helen in her house and creating her art. But this is the repressive era of the 1970s, when nonconformists like Miss Helen represent a threat to the reactionary values embodied by the pastor and held by the entire community. So Marius has his excuse to swoop in and pressure his vulnerable neighbor into an old folks’ home.
The power struggle between Elsa and Marius isn’t exactly an even match. Gugino gives a respectable perf as the strong-willed Elsa, who worships Miss Helen for her unbridled imagination. But with repetition, Elsa’s brisk exhortations to her frail friend sound shrill and insensitive.
Marius, who is initially presented as a reactionary bully, turns out to have more dimension to his character. In his subtly shaded perf, Jim Dale at first argues the pastor’s case with cool logic. But the warmth in his voice — and the conflicted feelings he expresses just by clasping and unclasping his fingers — tell an entirely different story.
After hearing them both out, Miss Helen makes her decision about her own future, finding her voice in an ecstatic speech that Harris delivers with an incandescent flame in her eye. It’s a long time coming, and for too much of the play thesp is constrained by Miss Helen’s fragility. But when the moment comes, Harris lights her candles and sets the stage ablaze.