Even before Miss Helen, the reclusive visionary artist at the center of Athol Fugard's 1987 chamber drama "The Road to Mecca," appears onstage in the Olney Theatre Center's affecting production, we already know a great deal about her.
Thanks to set designer Robin Stapley's ingenuity and attention to detail, we are at once swept into a world awash in brilliant color, light, shape and texture. Miss Helen's living room-bedroom, full of surreal animal sculptures, candles, glass, painted furniture and floorboards, is clearly a fantastical haven, a testament to its inhabitant's fertile imagination. But the slightly off-kilter angles of the space suggest an unsettled mind, perhaps even a distorted sense of reality.
It turns out that Miss Helen, a seventyish Afrikaner widow, has indeed been living a life of unparalleled artistic inspiration and more recently, confusion and turmoil. Since her husband's death 15 years back, she has turned her back on the conventional, pious life she lived in the tiny South African village of New Bethesda and worked to realize the magical visions in her head. Because she has retreated from church and society and into her own artistic realm, her fellow villagers have dubbed her "mad." Her idea of Mecca is a far cry from theirs.
The questions about art and faith and trust and responsibility swirling about in Miss Helen's brain are posed and wrestled with on one long evening when two very different visitors appear, at close intervals, at her door. First comes Elsa, a liberal, outspoken, 31-year-old schoolteacher from Cape Town who, for the past five years, has forged an intense friendship with the artist. She is followed by Pastor Marius Byleveld, a well-meaning but narrow-minded gent who believes Miss Helen would be best off selling her beloved home and succumbing to the "comforts" of an old folks' home.
During the first part of this tense, confession-laden evening, the two women play a game of emotional cat-and-mouse. Elsa plays the fierce feline, while Miss Helen falls into the skittish mouse role. Helen scurries away from a barrage of questions: Why does she defend the bigoted Marius and his congregants? What are those burns on her hands? Why did she write that quasi-suicide note that sent Elsa racing 800 miles to her side? These questions are answered with tears and hesitations, and eventually, deeply considered, poetic explanations.
And sometimes the tables are turned. Elsa, lonely, angry and unlucky in love, ends up answering quite a few difficult questions herself. Even Marius, who begins as a righteous wall of a man, is revealed to be more than the racist, unyielding chauvinist Elsa accuses him of being. It seems that all three of these troubled souls are battling demons, trying to make it through the dust and depression and guilt and moral decay. By evening's end, each has begun to walk a road of greater trust and self-awareness.
"The Road to Mecca" can only succeed fully when its three actors have total command of the imagery-besotted language and of the seesawing relationships Fugard has constructed. The Olney production boasts a splendid Miss Helen, Helen-Jean Arthur, who conveys all of the character's drive and doubt and otherworldly understanding by means of a musical voice, a birdlike physicality and an incandescence in her eyes. As Marius, Max Jacobs is equally powerful; the now-halting, now-rushing rhythm of his speech, the robustness that now and then yields to a saggy absent-mindedness tell us much about a man whose public duty masks an abiding personal love.
Only Hope Lambert, in the difficult role of Elsa, fails to get past the overly arch or gushing tendencies that the playwright has embedded in this frustrated character. There's an affected quality to both her speech and her physical mannerisms that makes it hard for a theatergoer to take her troubles to heart, or to believe that she'd drive 12 hours to hang out with an old lady in the middle of nowhere. Director Adele Cabot has also given her way too much business to do--clearing teacups, folding sheets, unpacking clothes--and not enough guidance in the way of paring down gestures, holding a gaze, taking a breath. This is a play that requires all of those things in abundance.
The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard. Lighting by Daniel McLean Wagner; costumes by Robin Stapley; sound by Ron Ursano/The Chroma Group. Through Sept. 26 at the Olney Theatre Center.