THE ROAD TO MECCA
Shattered Globe Theatre
at the Royal George Theatre Center Gallery
SCENE OF SHIPWRECK
Athol Fugard’s Miss Helen may well be one of the most beautiful female characters in 20th-century theater. Never mind that the playwright realized only late in the game that he’d written a self-portrait, not a biography of a remarkable woman, in his 1985 The Road to Mecca–the qualities he ascribes to Miss Helen transcend the sexes.
Fugard based Miss Helen on a real person: one Helen Martins, an Afrikaner who filled the yard around her small house in the isolated Karoo town of New Bethesda with an amazing array of owls, camels, wise men, and peacocks made from cement and decorated with whatever colorful baubles she could find. Her sculptures scared children and embarrassed her conservative neighbors, and building them was hardly considered a fitting activity for an aging widow raised in the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, after 17 years of creative passion, Helen Martins had become a total recluse. Paranoid and depressed, she ultimately took her own life.
In The Road to Mecca Fugard enters Martins’s life at the height of her depression, but in his version Miss Helen doesn’t kill herself. Instead she triumphs, standing up to the village parson who wants to move her into an old folks’ home. Though Fugard knew of Martins’s suicide, he’s reenvisioned her here as an embodiment of the creative spirit. She glows with an inner light as she communicates her vision to the parson, and in doing so becomes more beautiful and moving than her art.
With its production of The Road to Mecca, Shattered Globe Theatre once again proves itself to be one of the most adept fringe theaters in Chicago. Directed by Roger Smart, with South African Ann Wakefield as Miss Helen, Linda Reiter as her young friend Elsa Barlow, and Andrew J. Turner as the parson Marius Bylefeld, this production gently captures Miss Helen’s passionate spirit. This is due in no small part to Wakefield’s performance. Like Fugard, Wakefield grew up within miles of New Bethesda, and her charming South African accent is exactly suited to Fugard’s poetry. More important, Wakefield seems to understand Miss Helen’s soul. She’s absorbed Miss Helen into her skin; her pauses, mumbling, and gentle poetry all flow smoothly and naturally; her movement speaks no lies.
The Road to Mecca is also an unusual love story. It’s about trust–in oneself, one’s artistic vision, and in the people who support that vision. The person who supports Miss Helen’s vision is Elsa Barlow, a radical British schoolteacher. When the play opens, Elsa has driven ten hours to New Bethesda, worried by an alarming letter in which Miss Helen cries out that she is losing her eyesight, her work, and her home. She announces that she would rather take her own life than continue. Elsa runs to help her friend but also to ease her own grief over a failed love affair and an abortion. Both find strength in their unusual friendship: without Elsa, Miss Helen wouldn’t be able to stand up against the well-meaning Bylefeld, and without Miss Helen, Elsa couldn’t find solace. Both characters are vulnerable, but Reiter’s tough-skinned Elsa provides a nice contrast to Wakefield’s soft, gentle Miss Helen, whose strength emerges gradually.
The production does have its flaws. There is much talk about Miss Helen’s ability to create a magical place in her home, but the set falls short of magic. Young Turner is miscast as the old Reverend Bylefeld, and his old-age makeup and characterizations seem falsely theatrical next to Wakefield’s genuine performance. But Smart’s skillful direction, plus engrossing performances by Wakefield and Reiter, go a long way toward minimizing these flaws, creating a different kind of magical world onstage and bringing out the soul of Fugard’s work.
Scene of Shipwreck, by South African playwright Pamela Mills, explores a family’s struggles in a windy, desolate outpost. The only whites in town, they ache with loneliness brought on by their separateness from the native African community.
At first Mills hints that this play is going to be about race relations, but actually it’s about incest. Ruth, the youngest daughter, is routinely molested by her father. She finds herself pregnant and finally tells her mother what’s been happening. Her mother refuses to believe her, although in her heart she knows it’s true. Mills doesn’t seem to have found a thread to stitch the pieces of her story together, however. It seems that her message must have something to do with the family’s role as the only whites in the village, the father’s stubborn ties to his land, the mother’s acceptance of a lie, and the second daughter’s messed-up sexuality. But what exactly Mills’s message is isn’t clear. She needs to go back to the drawing board and figure out what she’s trying to say.
Director Tom Drummer seems even less certain about it than Mills. And his concept of space and time, like hers, is practically nonexistent. The season is supposed to be Christmas, but C. Edd Lunken’s set doesn’t even hint at what Christmas might be like in a desolate South African town. Drummer’s staging is full of sloppy contradictions: when family members lie down for a good night’s sleep, for example, they keep all their clothes on, but when Ruth lies down for a rest she takes all her clothes off. Then there are such frustrating oversights as characters walking right through imaginary tables and walls. The result is a fragmented production that starts poorly and gets worse.