Athol Fugard always seems to be writing two plays at once. Each Fugard play is an allegory—political, moral, aesthetic—that at the same time sits embedded rigorously in naturalism. Like walking in two directions at once, the procedure isn’t easy: It gives every new work the dangerous possibility of falling flat on its face. The most remarkable aspect of Fugard’s long career is how often and how effectively he has managed to stand his ground in this artistically shaky condition.
Fugard’s 1984 play, The Road to Mecca, now revived at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, has always struck me as one of his flatter falls, a play that struggles to embody the artist’s thorny relationship to society in a not-quite-convincing story about one confrontational day in the life of an elderly nonconformist. Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), a Boer widow in a remote village on the Karoo Plain, a favorite Fugard locale, has in the years since her husband’s death gradually distanced herself from her conventionally straitlaced neighbors by turning her front yard into a homemade junk-sculpture garden that she calls her “Mecca,” a vision of a magical faraway city she’ll never visit.
We never see the sculptures, which her neighbors regard as “monsters,” at least according to Marius (Jim Dale), the local minister. Yet Miss Helen’s works have a life-enhancing effect on tormented urban visitors like Elsa (Carla Gugino), a Cape Town schoolteacher who stumbled across Miss Helen’s amateur wonderland in a moment of crisis and became a close friend. A new personal trauma drives Elsa to visit unexpectedly just as Miss Helen must face a crisis of her own: The combination of her increasing frailty and the town’s increasing disapproval makes Marius want to have her committed to an old-age home.
Although he painstakingly refrains from oversimplifying his characters, Fugard explains far too much here (and, worse, hammers away at the explanations). Gordon Edelstein’s solid, somewhat lumpish production, unimaginatively designed, adds to the overall sense of heavy earnestness. Gugino, a forceful performer, signals overassertively; the usually reliable Dale seems distant and uncomfortable even beyond his character’s discomfort with the situation. Only Harris, working her habitual magic, supplies an extra enhancement to make the evening viable, not merely crafting a detailed embodiment of Miss Helen, the self-taught artist as small-town putterer, but infusing it with her personal radiance, which casts a far more enchanting glow than the many prop candles demanded by the script.