NEW YORK — You can have your television and movie hotties, the big catches whom producers are all desperately seeking to trumpet on their marquees. For me, true Broadway glamor burns far more brightly in the guise of an octogenarian stage star like Rosemary Harris.
Yes, it’s Harris who drew me inexorably to a seat in the American Airlines Theatre, where she is appearing in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca.” Portraying a self-taught sculptor who embodies the isolation of the iconoclastic artist in apartheid South Africa, Harris offers the kind of rich and yet unadorned performance one expects of one of the profession’s elite practitioners.
Her turn as Miss Helen, who’s torn between her own need for independence and the community’s desire to mute her voice, provides the essential emotional ballast for director Gordon Edelstein’s production, which also features Carla Gugino as Miss Helen’s headstrong ally, Elsa, and Jim Dale, as an Afrikaaner pastor who seeks to exert his control over the older woman. Though I preferred the more evocative set and subtler psychological outlines of Studio Theatre’s 2008 revival with Holly Twyford, Tana Hicken and Martin Rayner, this latest “Mecca,” which opened Tuesday night, nevertheless reminds you that Fugard at his best is a consummate investigator of long-held secrets.
The 1988 play recounts the struggle between Elsa, an English South African, and Dale’s Marius over Miss Helen’s fate -- whether she should be compelled to relinquish her art-filled homestead for a room in an old-age home. (A deficiency of Edelstein’s production, and Michael Yeargan’s set design, is the relative absence of Miss Helen’s primitive art.) Gugino makes for a robust Elsa, and perhaps too much so; what fragile part of her is nourished after her long drives from the city to visit Miss Helen in the outback is never resonantly revealed.
Dale — known to younger audiences as the narrator of the “Harry Potter” books on tape — envelops the clergyman in an aptly ambiguous air of pastoral concern. Still, it’s Harris’s rendering of Miss Helen, as she doggedly clings to her autonomy, that permits “The Road to Mecca” to maintain its hold on us.
The Road to Mecca, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. About 2 hours 25 minutes. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. Visit Roundabout Theatre, or call 212-719-1300.