Northlight Theatre

I read somewhere that Athol Fugard admires Samuel Beckett above all other contemporary playwrights. That makes sense to me, especially when I look at some of the earlier Fugard scripts: The Blood Knot, with its absurd brothers–black and white sons of the same parents–bouncing around a cardboard-and-corrugated-metal shack. Or Boesman and Lena, with its worn-out colored couple wrestling each other in the South African wilderness. Fugard seemed to share Beckett’s stark aesthetic. His characters inhabited–but were never quite permitted to fill–a pared-down, hollowed-out world where resonances carry far.

Now all that’s changed. The Beckett/Fugard connection’s become much more tenuous over the last, say, ten years. The logic of Beckett’s genius has led him toward purer and purer theatrical gestures–painterly essences like Ohio Impromptu, in which one spectral soul listens while his twin reads a story about one spectral soul listening while his twin reads a story.

Fugard, meanwhile, has reverted to a more conventional, literary sort of naturalism. Far from following Beckett into realms of astringent beauty, Fugard’s more recent plays are full of telling details and recurring motifs, poetic monologues, exposition, characterization, and the Big Symbol. The usual, in short. His world is no longer either pared down or hollowed out, but packed with the familiar Western playwright’s mix of real-life ephemera and theatrical contrivance.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The details in a play like A Lesson From Aloes help create an atmosphere in which you can positively breathe in the sorrow and sickness, the emotional poisons, generated by apartheid. The carefully developed symbols in a play like Master Harold . . . & the Boys help establish a moral universe in which Harold’s climactic act of racism can echo like a scream.

The effect isn’t nearly so powerful, however, when Fugard wanders away from the subject of race and South Africa’s peculiar institution. Without the horror of apartheid to galvanize, to focus, and finally to transcend its conventions, Fugard’s post-Beckett style becomes, well, merely conventional.

Consider his latest, The Road to Mecca. Set in a dusty dry region of South Africa called the Karoo, the play offers us a pivotal moment in the life of a small-town Afrikaner eccentric known as Miss Helen, who’s spent the 15 years since her husband’s death turning her home into a holy city, a Mecca made out of glass and cement. Helen’s filled what used to be the garden with a sculpted menagerie of camels and Wise Men, owls, peacocks, and mermaids. Ground glass is embedded in the interior walls of her house so they shimmer in the glow of candles, creating a “little miracle of light and color.”

But Helen has come to the end of her vision. Her Mecca’s complete–and so, she imagines, is her life. She’s fallen into despair. Her actions have a dangerously erratic quality to them, a quality her fellow townsfolk mistake for the final senility of a woman they always considered crazy anyway. Well-meaning but provincial–and decidedly paternalistic–they suggest that she take a room at the local retirement home.

And Helen’s more or less willing, until her friend Elsa–a forthright, opinionated, progressive young academic from Cape Town–arrives to help her (or, more accurately, to remind her) to resist. The play’s basically about the tug-of-war between Elsa and the community for Helen’s heart and mind.

Fair enough. The situation’s certainly dramatic, and it allows Fugard a fine opportunity to meditate on the position of the artist–or the simple oddball, for that matter–in a repressive society like South Africa’s. There’s also some lovely writing along about the second act, when everybody’s delivering their poetic monologues.

But there’s no edge to any of it. Something’s missing, something that’s both distinctly and not-so-distinctly present in Fugard’s apartheid plays: A vast, half-helpless sadness. A loving despair. Without which The Road to Mecca reduces down to little more than a sentimental if smartly executed collection of theatrical tactics in the conventional-literary-naturalistic vein.

The current Northlight production doesn’t help at all. The direction, under Thomas Bullard, is frustratingly flat-footed, Delphi Lawrence’s Miss Helen seems to have been dulled out on purpose, perhaps as a way of building toward her big decision; trouble is, that strategy leaves us to spend most of the play wondering what everyone finds so damned marvelous and/or baffling about her. Margo Buchanan’s Elsa, meanwhile, has been permitted a choice of only two styles: the bullheaded and the whimsical.

Only Maury Cooper, representing the community as a minister named Marius Byleveld, manages to register a human subtlety of feeling–a bizarre irony, considering the fact that he’s supposed to be the most repressed presence there. Cooper’s combination of dignity, gentleness, emotional myopia, and love is the best thing about the show. The rest, like set designer Linda Buchanan’s pale realization of Helen’s Mecca, lacks the necessary light and color and fire.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Avery.