There's something about the work of Athol Fugard — or at least about this particular work, The Road to Mecca — that reminds me of the plays of August Wilson. It has the same rich sense of place and culture, the same emotional complexity and the same kind of humanism, a wise and deep-hearted affection for the characters, no matter how troubled or misguided they may be. Except that where the emotional complexity in Wilson's ten-play cycle comes through the interactions of several characters, here all the themes and contradictions reside in the bosoms of only three lonely, puzzled people.
The story is based on the life of South African artist Helen Martins, one of those eccentric, compulsive art-makers who draw all their inspiration from private visions and the depths of their own souls, never study technique, and have no connection to the regular art world. Martins decorated her house with luminous paint and multi-colored crushed glass, and filled her garden with cement and glass sculptures of religious figures, camels and wise men, all facing east — along with mermaids, sphinxes and owls. She was mocked and ostracized by the Calvinist Afrikaners of New Bethesda, a tiny town in the arid, inhospitable region called the Great Karoo, where she lived, but after her death, in 1976, her home became a museum that helped revitalize the area. Outsider art — found in odd and unexpected places — is often piercing in ways that works displayed in a white-walled gallery never can be, and it raises troubling questions about the universality of creativity and all the usual standards we apply to art.
Fugard is best known for his anti-Apartheid plays, but although he's at pains to provide a sense of Helen Martins's milieu — and the defiant politics of her younger friend, Elsa Barlow — his focus here is more on personal dynamics, as well as the plight of a free spirit in a rigid society. As the play opens, Helen is contemplating the rigors of age, and Elsa has just made the twelve-hour drive to see her. She eventually learns that her Miss Helen is being pressured by the local reverend, Marius Byleveld, into leaving her house for a nursing home. At the end of the first act, Byleveld himself appears; the varying confrontations between the three take up much of the second. But nothing is quite as clear-cut as it appears — except, perhaps, Helen's yearning for light, expressed through the many candles flickering in her home and at the core of her art-making. Byleveld isn't quite the monster he at first seems, and Helen isn't entirely free-spirited: A child of her time, she's in some ways very conventional. And while Elsa may have come to save her friend, she turns out to need a little saving of her own.
There's some preachiness to the script, and a bit too much rapturous carrying-on about the wonders of art and the mysteries of light. No image or metaphor is allowed to rest unexplained, and sometimes the action just plain goes on too long. Director Nagle Jackson has given this Creede Repertory production a lot of telling and meticulous touches, but while the acting is good enough to carry the play, it isn't quite good enough to make it shimmer. There's a pleasing gentleness to Logan Ernstthal's Byleveld from the very beginning; the contrast between his kindly demeanor and the demands he makes on Helen is interesting — but the act would have been more dynamic if he'd been harder and more rigid at times. Kate Berry's angry gawkiness as Elsa is striking, but her emotional moments don't carry the weight they should. Most important, Christy Brandt's Helen never feels grounded: There's supposed to be a contrast between her human weakness and depression and the steely determination she brings to the art, but Brandt tips the balance too far toward befuddlement.
Still, this is a luminous play, pulsing with feeling and insight, and the ultimate effect is profound. And what a pleasure to see it with a packed Saturday-night audience.