Home is where the art is in The Road to Mecca

Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, currently playing at Miners Alley, explores huge and unanswerable questions: questions about age, death, love and trust, the meaning of home and the significance of art — how creativity animates our lives, what happens when creativity's lost. It does this through the lives of three lonely and uncertain people. The character of Miss Helen is based on eccentric outsider artist Helen Martins, who after a long absence returned in the 1930s to Nieu Bethesda, a small village in an arid region of South Africa called the Great Karoo, where she was born. Bitterly lonely at first, she discovered her calling as an artist and began decorating her house with crushed colored glass and filling her garden with cement statues of owls, camels, sphinxes, mermaids, peacocks and wise men, all oriented toward the East, where she imagined Mecca as a great and wondrous city. The rigidly pious people of Nieu Bethesda were appalled by her work. She was shunned; children threw stones at the house.

We learn early in the play that Helen is resisting the efforts of the local pastor, Marius Byleveld, to get her moved from her crazily decorated house to a placid facility for the elderly. But she also has a single deep and enduring friendship. Some years earlier, Elsa Barlow, a dynamic young schoolteacher, came upon Helen's garden and was enchanted with the artwork. When Elsa stumbles through Helen's door now, retreats and then returns, the action begins. Elsa is appalled by Marius's plans for Helen; Helen is shaken by Elsa's strange mood, her apparently unfounded touchiness and flashes of anger. Through the expository first act, the two women attempt to tease out each other's truths, all the while testing and reaffirming their mutual affection. This rich, drawn-out and patiently limned encounter, with its odd stops and starts, mix of old-sock familiarity with prickly over-sensitivity and the occasional comfortable joke sequence, is at the heart of the play, and it's here that Deborah Curtis as Helen and Miriam BC Tobin as Elsa are at their most appealing and believable.

Then Marius visits, and he comes to dominate much of the second act. Tim Fishbaugh brings warmth and kindliness to the role, and he's not exactly the man we expected from the women's descriptions. Sure, he's religious and conventional. He's paternalistic toward the black and mixed-race population of Nieu Bethesda, and he finds Helen's art monstrous and grotesque, a sign that she is utterly lost. A fight for Helen's soul ensues between antagonists, who each only partially understand her. Elsa, rebellious and passionate about social justice, believes her friend is being silenced because, as an artist and free soul, she's threatening to small-minded townsfolk. Marius, who senses Helen's conventional leanings and sees the Karoo as nurturing and beautiful rather than arid, fears for her safety and desires ardently to help and protect her. That is, by his own lights — since both he and Elsa are unable to shed their blinders and Helen remains infuriatingly silent throughout. This particular battle goes on a little too long, with points too often repeated.

When Helen finally speaks, it's an impassioned monologue designed to bare her soul and illuminate the situation like a flash of lightning — but somehow it doesn't. I couldn't figure out at this point if the fault was in the slow-moving script or if Curtis's performance didn't quite rise to this crucial moment. And once Marius has left, it's disconcerting to find new plot points arising, as if the play itself just didn't know when to stop. But then the disparate elements come together for an ending that balances perfectly between hope and despair.

The set on the Miners Alley stage is adorned with bits of decoration too tinselly to communicate the power of Helen's art, and while Tobin has strong moments as Elsa, she also has a tendency to sound shaky and shrill when expressing anger — which happens a lot. Still, this is a solid, praiseworthy production of an insightful work, and the two actresses work beautifully together, conveying an affection simultaneously baffled and indestructible.