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Friday, April 12, 2013

The Lonely Road to Mecca

Athol Fugard’s introspective, fantastical world

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An artist’s life can be a lonely one, and playwright Athol Fugard explores this notion in The Road to Mecca. The production by Renaissance Theaterworks continues in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theater through April 28.

The play opens in a remote desert region of South Africa, where an Afrikaner (Dutch South African) widow has created a fantastical world inside and outside the house where she has lived for many years. The Renaissance production, directed by Suzan Fete, brings this world vividly to life. Life-size sculptures—made of wire, concrete and glass—can easily be seen beyond the home’s windows. This is Miss Helen’s world, her “Mecca.” The set design is almost magical in its depiction of this unusual place.

The Road to Mecca isn’t one of Fugard’s best-known plays. Still, this exploration of one of his more introspective works is not to be missed, especially with veteran actor Linda Stephens as Miss Helen. Stephens, seen here with barely combed hair and wearing an oversized button-down shirt and baggy pants, cannot hide her character’s inner beauty. Both playful and profound, Stephens engages the audience from beginning to end.

A central question gives the play its focus: Will Miss Helen move into an old-age home, as suggested by Marius, a local pastor (wonderfully played by well-known actor Jonathan Gillard Daly)? Or will she remain free, as argued by the much-younger Elsa (Bri Sudia), an urban schoolteacher from Cape Town? Miss Helen wonders, wavers and ultimately makes her choice, but not until the play’s end. Stephens creates a gentle character whose age and vulnerability have begun to make her doubt how much longer she can hold out before her lifestyle becomes too much to handle. She understands that Elsa cannot fully grasp her situation. As Elsa, Sudia comes off as harsh, impatient and overly dramatic. Yet the invisible bond between these two unlikely friends seems unbreakable. And audiences will perhaps come away with a new appreciation for how friendships endure, as well as how art influences lives.

For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800, or visit r-t-w.com.   

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