note: entire contents copyright 1997 by E. Kyle Minor
by E. Kyle Minor
Athol Fugard admits to writing "small plays." "Small" is a relative word. Especially in consideration of "The Road To Mecca," richly rendered at Long Wharf Theatre by Julie Harris, Linda Purl and Tom Aldredge. The production, which runs through February 9, is resonant, implosive and stirring.
"Mecca" is about the freedom of the human spirit. Two characters, Elsa (Linda Purl) and Marius (Tom Aldredge) fight for the soul of Miss Helen (Julie Harris). Finally, it is Miss Helen alone who decides what Miss Helen will do.
This may sound like a "small" idea, a simple dramatic action on which to hang the tale. The beauty of "Mecca" is how Fugard imbues this idea with rich colors and subtle shadings. Director Tillinger guides his blue chip cast through the journey with a strong yet unseen hand. This creates as a performance that's as understated and ultimately clear as the writing.
"Mecca" is Theatre-of-Take-Your-Time. Set in 1974 South Africa, the play starts out slowly, delaying the point of attach until Act I is more than half over. The audience wets its feet in conversation between Elsa and Miss Helen as they catch up on each other's life. The independent-minded Elsa continues to battle the windmills of the Cape Town school board which employs her as a teacher. Miss Helen continues working on her elaborately created sculptures of various subjects: owls, Buddha, elephants. Remember that all statues face the east.
Miss Helen's problem reaches the table when she produces a written agreement for Elsa. The document is only one signature shy of sending the eccentric woman to an "old folks home." From what Miss Helen discloses to Elsa, it sounds as if she's been coerced into going by the Christian community of her town.
Things bubble up swiftly when Marius calls on the ladies. Tension between Elsa and Marius boosts the stage temperature by 10 degrees, fueled by the ideological difference separating both characters. At first, we assume Marius a nefarious force. This has nothing to do with Aldredge's performance, which is very even- handed to say the least. Rather, our perception of him is tainted by the previous Elsa-Mis Helen scene. We half expect Marius to twirl a long, black mustache, eager to give old Helen the gate.
Gradually, Marius explains himself, or in some degree, defends himself to Miss Helen. He eradicates the sour first impression we've already formed, no easy feat for sure. In the fullness of time, we learn Marius' full agenda involving feelings for Miss Helen that he himself hasn't dealt with. The whole scene plays like a well-balance arm-wrestle, with one side losing ground only to regain its strength in seesaw fashion.
What settles the match is Miss Helen's beautifully written speech, affirming her own desire for freedom of her own soul. After digesting it against his gut feeling, Marius leaves the house virtually speechless.
There is much to enjoy with Long Wharf's production. Set
designer James Noone and scenic artist Keith Hyatte create a vivid
world that is half museum and half cozy living room. Strangely
enough, both styles settle well with each other that suits Miss
Helen's tastes succinctly. Dennis Parichy's subtle lighting design
cues well off the play's emotional tone and the set's many
candles. Introverted speeches are discreetly supported as are the
outward moments. With a cast of this caliber you expect minor
miracles. You get them too. Purl, last seen at Long Wharf in "Baby
Dance," personifies energy and restraint simultaneously. Aldredge
uses his innately gravely voice well rather than merely relying on
it. Harris gets her winning moment, her big speech, towards the
end, as if saving the best for last.
Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca"
runs through February 9
at Long Wharf Theatre, Sargent Drive, New Haven
Julie Harris, Linda Purl and Tom Aldredge star
John Tillinger directs
Tickets range $29-$39
Call (203) 787-4282