Orange Girls shed a lovely light on The Road to Mecca

Feb 13, 2008 at 4:00 am
It's no accident that when Miss Helen, a sixtysomething widow who lives alone in a small town in the South African outback, first began to indulge her artistic bent, she created an owl. For Miss Helen herself is a wise old owl. But too many years of solitude have taken their toll, and she is now a lonely old bird. Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, which is currently being given a simple yet resplendent production by the Orange Girls, intrigues on many levels. But it is especially moving for its compassionate portrait of an artist in decline.

Miss Helen is based on a real person, Helen Martins, an eccentric and reclusive sculptor who lived in the same remote town as Fugard. Though they only had a nodding acquaintance, after she died Fugard realized that she was the stuff of drama. So he wrote this play about Martins' unlikely friendship with a young social worker from Cape Town. The conflict arises when a local pastor deems it best that Miss Helen should surrender her independence and move to a nursing home.

As the play begins, the young friend has just driven 800 miles to pay a brief visit. Clearly, something is amiss to trigger such an extravagant gesture. Fugard, whose writing is always discursive, takes his time to let the play's threads unravel. Meanwhile the viewer comes to realize that this story is not solely about Miss Helen. Elsa, a firebrand English teacher who is on the verge of being fired, is an integral part of Mecca's triptych. Each woman personifies a kind of terrible freedom; each dares to be challenge the status quo; each understands the toll that is taken on one who chooses a life free of compromise.

The final side of the triptych is Marius, the local pastor. How easy it would have been for Fugard to portray Marius as the villain, an authority figure out to break misfits like Helen. But no. Marius' worst sin is one of obstinacy; he has grown too accustomed to having things done his way. He cannot understand why Helen would fill her garden, which she calls "mecca," with odd cement animals. Because Marius is not a one-dimensional cliché, the decision over Helen's future is not a foregone conclusion. There is nothing tidy about this play. As Helen says about her sculpture garden, "My mecca has its own logic. Even I don't understand it." There are things here we might not understand, especially on a first viewing, for there is much to absorb.

But if the play is untidy, the production is pristine. Sarah Whitney has directed with an eye to stillness. No one moves merely for the sake of moving. The action plays out so naturally, there's often an uncanny sense that we viewers are outside Helen's house, listening to these conversations through a window. Scott DeBroux's scenic design allows us to enter Helen's universe, a coruscating world that is defined by light and dark.

Richard Lewis brings a sympathetic inflexibility to Marius. His silver hair has never seemed more commanding. Here is a pastor who would be pursued by every widow in town — except, of course, Helen. The measure of Brooke Edwards' Elsa is not to be found in specific line readings. Rather, it is in the love for Helen that glows in her eyes. We learn as much about Helen's humanity from Edwards' demeanor as we do from any words that Fugard wrote.

But the evening belongs to Nancy Lewis, whose Miss Helen is a marvel of organic re-creation. Wrapped in an old cardigan, Lewis introduces us to a sage yet incongruously innocent miracle worker who weaves a spell of magic. Anyone who regularly attends the theater is prone to witness wonderful acting. Yet only rarely are we able to say, "Through this actor I understand this play." But as an artist herself who here embodies and reveals the mystery of art, Lewis is both the journey and the destination of The Road to Mecca.