Review of The Road to Mecca
By Athol Furgard
Directed by Elizabeth Craven
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol
RUN: February 5 – 21, 2016
RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars
(February 6, 2016)
The Road to Mecca premiered in 1984 at Yale University, giving a vignette of Helen Martins in her final year. Nieu-Bethesda in South Africa was a conservative area during the 1970s, heavily influenced by apartheid. From the tradition bound society, a free-thinking artist emerged, catalyzed by her husband’s death. She created what has become known as The Owl House, surrounded by elongated figures with arms stretched toward the East in a journey to Mecca. Playwright Athol Furgard grew up in South Africa during the apartheid period, and creates a compelling picture in this play.
The Main Stage West set design, by Elizabeth Craven and David Lear, is quintessential Sebastopol, an interior rather like the di Rosa. The actual Owl House is a more elegant English Regency affair with simple lines and squares, only accented with crushed glass. What they have created instead is an atmosphere that feels real to Sonoma County natives, bringing us closer to the wilds of the Karoo. What they have in common is a love of candlelight glistening in Eastern splendor.
Miss Helen (Laura Jorgensen) is facing impending despair; her eyes and physical strength are failing, and worst of all her inspiration has dried up. In a lament I have seen first-hand in elderly artists, she cries out with terror that the images might no longer come, that she has created all she can—darkness is descending for good, snuffing out the spark in her life that no candle can light. The play ends with hope, in a remark by Marius Byleveld (John Craven) that her inner light is brighter than all the candles. Unfortunately, Craven has not entirely learned his lines yet, which breaks the flow of many emotional scenes.
The play depicts a close relationship between two women, both the ups and downs. They support and push each other, alternating between arguments and genuine compassion. Young Elsa Barlow (Ilana Niernberger) arrives after a long car ride in a foul mood, from her own baggage and a disturbing event that happened on her way there. She begs to be left alone for a few minutes upon arrival, an irritation I have felt myself after traveling a long time. Niernberger is engaging in her portrayal of a woman struggling with betrayal and a broken heart by hiding behind logic and list making. Jorgensen’s Miss Helen flounders when trying to make a decision, unable to put her true feelings into words until the end, when she blossoms from flustered hesitation into glorious confidence.
It is an exposition heavy play, but I do not believe it suffers from it. Rather, the detailed analysis augments the world, creating two highly intelligent women who reason and think with each other while trying to make difficult decisions. When the truth of Elsa’s predicament comes out, it is both heart-wrenching and beautiful. The Road to Mecca is an intimate portrait of the love between two women who challenge and draw inspiration from each other. I would highly recommend taking the opportunity to see this South African play from a director who clearly cherishes the material.