By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Choose your superlative. When acting is of the caliber found in Studio Theatre's new production of Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca," the dictionary opens up a spectrum of laurel-tossing possibilities.
The reviewer's task is inordinately straightforward on occasions such as the unwrapping of director Joy Zinoman's riveting revival of this 1988 drama, set in the home of an older South African artist who's become a pariah to her hidebound Afrikaner neighbors.
The portraits here are etched with uncanny passion and exactitude. As a trio of exquisitely cast actors -- Tana Hicken, Holly Twyford and Martin Rayner -- leads us deep into the night of a pivotal, emotionally charged decision that will change them all, the contours of authentic struggles and complicated psyches come wrenchingly to light.
The work -- lyrical, intense and character-driven -- plays right into Zinoman's directorial strengths. As she's demonstrated in the past, in pieces as varied as "A Number," "Shining City," "The Play About the Baby" and "Topdog/Underdog," her forte is peeling back a kind of bare-knuckled naturalism (even when the drama may not be all that naturalistic).
Rooted in the tornadic power of words, her style bears down on a play most poetically when she's dealing with playwrights who parcel them out with precision to a fairly small cadre of characters. The more they get to wrestle with each other in bedrooms and doctor's offices, living rooms and other intimate spaces, the more this director finds her metier.
Some important part of a director's work is knowing, too, when simply to get out of an actor's way, and that is apparent in this "Road to Mecca," as well. The play has a strong point of view -- an artist held in contempt for ideas running counter to those of the ruling class could have described Fugard himself in apartheid South Africa -- but the tone is compassionate, toward even the hardest-headed character. Hicken, Twyford and Rayner robustly embrace the spirit of the play, presenting us with compelling figures whose intentions can't be categorically pegged as innocent or guilty.
With its apparent religious overtones and accent on personal confession, "The Road to Mecca" could, in less capable hands, fall prey to a high-minded windiness. Here, though, we hang on every word. Based heavily on the life of South African artist Helen Martins, who turned her yard in a backwater town into a shrine to her eclectic glass work and sculpture -- the play examines the price one pays for one's art, one's independence, one's values.
The Afrikaner citizenry of dusty Nieu Bethesda in the autumn of 1974 is not at all happy that Helen -- played by Hicken with an endearing flicker that belies the character's infirmity -- has made her property a haven for "idolatry." ("Mecca" refers partly here to the Muslim pilgrimage city in whose direction the sculptures of camels and owls are pointed.) Nonconformity is not to be tolerated, and one can't help feeling that the adoration of the status quo encompasses maintaining a knee on the necks of the local black population.
Helen's sole ally is an outsider, Elsa (Twyford), a younger woman and English teacher who on this day has driven 800 miles from Cape Town to be with her distressed friend. The town, in the person of a local pastor, Marius (Rayner), is determined to rid itself of Helen -- and assuage its own guilt over wanting to get rid of her -- by persuading Helen to give up her house and move into a church-run old-age home.
Like the objects she feels compelled to create, Helen is herself posited here as an exotic work of art, one prone to be cherished and misinterpreted. "The Road to Mecca" explores the warring impulses, of protectiveness and control, she sparks in Elsa and Marius, and how her incandescent spirituality -- reflected in a realistic set by Debra Booth aglow in candlelight -- delights and frustrates them. And forces them, too, to confront their own secrets and haunting sense of loneliness.
Booth's meticulous realization of Helen's home as a sort of living gallery has been lighted by Michael Giannitti with an eye for the ghostly beauty of twilight. For what seems like all night, Zinoman has Hicken and Twyford circling the rooms, lighting candles, which has the dynamic effect of giving us a tour of the space in which Helen makes her art. This culminates in a marvelous moment, when the house seems to be bathed in its own inspirational halo.
The most striking illumination, however, is derived from other power sources. Rayner, for instance, creates in the potentially one-note role of Marius a deeply complex man whose adherence to an archaic system's rigid paternalism has undermined his better nature. As Helen reveals her mettle, the insight Marius gains comes across as surprisingly affecting.
Twyford is more than terrific as Elsa. Her construction of the character is fascinating: a woman greeting us as one of solid, forceful conviction, who over the course of the evening sheds her armor and exposes her own pitiable tragedies. Hicken -- retreating at times into Helen's shell of insecurity, and advancing at others to embrace the needy Elsa -- is the urgent heart of the play, ebulliently completing Fugard's penetrating human triangle.
The Road to Mecca, by Athol Fugard. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Costumes, Helen Q. Huang; dialect coach, Simon Kendall; sound, Gil Thompson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Oct. 12 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit http://www.studiotheatre.org.