NEW YORK -- "Yvonne is a killer of kings," says playwright Athol Fugard. "She is a Greek. She's Clytemnestra!" Fugard is raving about Yvonne Bryceland, the South African actress whom he has for two decades considered the definitive interpreter of his plays, and more specifically, about her work in his current off-Broadway success, "The Road to Mecca."

Acclaimed in her homeland and her adopted England, "Mecca" is Bryceland's first extended run in America. In it, she plays a frail, aging sculptress shunned by fellow villagers in a tiny, conservative South African dorp. Fugard, who directed the production, costars as the local minister bent on bringing this eccentric back to the flock, to a life he can understand.

Nearly all the American critics reviewing "Mecca" have praised Bryceland's performance as Helen Martins not only for its power but for its complexity and range. David Richards, in The Washington Post, called her "magnificent," and said, "Only a large, confident performance can house the fundamental contradictions this one does and not crack in pieces." Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times that Bryceland's Helen looked "almost like a bag lady," yet communicated the "wondrous spectacle" of her vision. Last week, when Bryceland won an Obie (off-Broadway) Award for her role, the citation noted that she'd captured almost unendurable vulnerability and dazzling passion at once.

At an interview in her Upper West Side sublet apartment, Bryceland seems a far cry from either a ferocious Clytemnestra or a frightened, exultant Helen Martins. She speaks with animated, almost musical grace. And she looks 20 years younger than she does in "Mecca." Her auburn hair, which she pin-curls up under a gray wig each evening, sprawls over her shoulders. Wearing a full-skirted black dress with a carved silver belt, she seems cultures away from the stage character in the shapeless cotton frock.

But as Bryceland whisks about to accommodate her visitor -- remarking that she's run out of the proper glasses for Perrier, concerned that the spot with the best light for photos won't be comfortable for sitting -- something of the warmth and even the skittishness with which she endows Miss Helen glimmer through. When she starts speaking about her work with Fugard, she becomes flushed with intensity.

In the 20 years Bryceland has collaborated with Fugard, she has done battle not only with soul-killing desolation in roles such as Helen, but also with the soul-killing forces of apartheid. In the early 1970s, when she was a leading actress in South Africa, she quit Cape Town's major government-supported theater and helped launch The Space, a fringe playhouse devoted to artistic broadening and social change. It was the first venue in South Africa to break the law requiring racial segregation. Bryceland's fierce courage on artistic and political fronts is what prompts Fugard to call her a "killer of kings."

Now an expatriate, Bryceland has acted for the past 10 years mainly at Britain's National Theater -- playing roles from the Trojan queen Hecuba in Edward Bond's "The Woman" to frazzled young wives in Dario Fo and Franca Rame's comic "One Woman Plays," to the madame in "Mrs. Warren's Profession." She portrayed Helen Martins in the 1984 South African premiere of "Mecca" (on one of her occasional visits there) and in London (where it earned her a Laurence Olivier Award) before bringing the role to New York.

Bryceland and Fugard first met more than 30 years ago, when he was stage-managing and she was performing in an amateur production of "Detective Story" in Cape Town. "We all thought Athol was fiercely intellectual," Bryceland recalls, smiling. "He had this wild beard and very thick hair. He was very serious about everything, and in those days I was flighty about most things. And so we didn't really have much in common."

When Fugard's first major play, "The Blood Knot," came to Cape Town early in 1962, Bryceland was astounded. The drama presented half-brothers of mixed blood, one of whom passed for white. It dealt with racial injustice in raw, heartbreaking terms. "Nobody had been writing plays like that about South Africa -- that meant something to South Africa," Bryceland says. "I thought, 'My God! This is really something else.' It took me a long time to get into what Athol had naturally -- a burning desire to change the whole system of South Africa."

When Fugard went to Cape Town in 1965 with his play "Hello and Goodbye," Bryceland, who was working as a journalist, interviewed him for an article in the Cape Times. That was the first time they really connected, he says. Two and a half years later, when he was casting "People Are Living There," he called to ask her about playing the lead.

By that time, Bryceland was a major actress for the Cape Performing Arts Board, one of the four branches of South Africa's national theater. Fugard was well known for his plays as well as for his collaboration with black actors in Port Elizabeth -- but he was still struggling to get productions done. They arranged to see each other.

Fugard recalls that meeting as "the theatrical equivalent of love at first sight." Twenty years later, he describes the "whole parcel of good news" he saw in Yvonne Bryceland: "I recognized power. I recognized, equally important, humor. My God, can she laugh, can she appreciate the absurdity of life! That absurdity touches on a lot of my characters. I thought she had a lot of secrets -- the more mysterious an actor's inner life is, the better it bodes for the possibility for performance. And the range in this lady -- she has a formidable range as an actress.

"Did I mention courage?" he goes on. "Put that at the top. I doubt if I will ever again encounter a performing talent with the courage that Yvonne Bryceland has exemplified, certainly in the challenges that I've thrown at her. She has thrown up her hands in horror and said 'No, Athol, you can't do this' -- then has gone on to do it. If there are Purple Hearts in theater and combat medals, she could have a breastful of them."

Bryceland showed the script for "People Are Living There" to the Cape Performing Arts Board -- and it decided to produce the show. She portrayed, in her words, "a menopausal landlady who's everything that Athol has ever written about -- resilient, forceful, not crazy but desperate, because her life is vanishing and she feels she has nothing to show for it." Fugard played her lover, a kind of eternal student. "It's sort of who Athol was," she says. "The story's based on when he and his wife Sheila lived in this terrible, grotty boarding house in Johannesburg, and Athol was trying to write plays."

That experience of performing with Fugard, Bryceland says, changed her life. "I was never involved in politics until I started working with Athol. From the time we started working together, I didn't want to do any other kind of theater."

Immediately following "People Are Living There," the Cape Performing Arts Board produced Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" -- a portrait of two middle-aged Coloureds (people of mixed race, according to apartheid's legal categorization) who migrate from wretched township to squatter camp to mud flat. Bryceland and Fugard -- whites of English and Afrikaner background, respectively -- played the leading roles.

She explains: "The black actors in South Africa at that stage were mostly making musicals or doing what amounted to concerts in the townships. And even the actors that were working with Athol were far behind in, what can I say, in the craft, because they had never had the opportunities. So we went into the play without even considering, 'Why are we playing them?' We just did them because they had to be done."

For a few weeks, they worked in what Bryceland describes as "light" blackface. But they soon decided that was ridiculous and performed without any special makeup.

Fugard describes Bryceland's Lena as "one of the pinnacle achievements of her career" -- along with her current portrayal of Helen in "Mecca." But playing Lena and Boesman was "a very humbling experience for both of us," he says, notwithstanding the lavish artistic praise they garnered. "There wasn't much room for vanity and conceit. It touched on the brutalized life of so many South Africans. It was almost a religious experience."

The national theater's productions of "People Are Living There" and "Boesman and Lena" took the country by storm, Bryceland says. "We were invited to play at the other centers. People just clambered to get in to see these plays. People are surprised that Athol's plays were and are done in South Africa with enormous success. But they were, from that time onward."

The actors also took "Boesman and Lena" into the black townships -- where, Bryceland says, they were welcomed. "People said to us, 'It really doesn't matter to us that your toes are white. What you're saying is what we want to hear. It's a play about us, and we don't care who's doing it.' "

Today the situation is different: "I've been asked to do Lena again, quite recently, and I said no. Now I wouldn't dream of playing her. That time is gone and past. A black woman must play that role -- there are so many black actresses who can play it. I wouldn't personally ever do it again. Which is sad -- it's a wonderful play."

In any case, Bryceland took part in Fugard's next project, in 1970 -- an eight-week experimental rehearsal-workshop, with three performers, to create a play about South Africa. "Orestes," the piece they developed, paralleled the mythic murders of the Greek "Oresteia" with the story of a white South African revolutionary who'd been hanged for bombing Johannesburg Station.

The national theater had sponsored the project, but when its officials observed a run-through, Bryceland says, "they nearly died. They didn't want it to be seen." The Cape Performing Arts Board gave the piece only six public performances. Their excuse was that "Orestes" was, as they put it, "a difficult play to market." But, Bryceland says, the play was extremely political, and "they obviously had instructions from Big Brother, or they thought they would have enormous trouble if they had that kind of thing on their stages. They dropped it like a very hot cake."

Bryceland's husband, photographer Brian Astbury, was so furious that the "Orestes" could not get a decent showing that he decided to establish an alternate theater himself -- a kind of studio space where innovative work could take place. Bryceland left the Cape Performing Arts Board to tour Fugard's plays independently of the national theater and then work in her husband's new venue. As Bryceland tells it, the choice was clear: "I don't want to come out looking like some sort of Joan of Arc, which I surely wasn't. I had a pretty comfortable position in the national theater, but this other thing was ever so much more important."

Astbury opened The Space in 1972 with "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act" -- a new work that Fugard, again, had written in a rehearsal-workshop with the performers. Bryceland played a white woman arrested for violating South Africa's ban on sexual relations between the races. The little theater also became a home for foreign plays, including work by Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard.

The Space presented integrated-cast shows to integrated audiences. At the time, this was against South African law. But, Bryceland explains, they took advantage of a loophole: "If it was a club, and people were members, there was nothing they could do about it." So Astbury ran The Space as a private club -- open to anybody.

From time to time, the police would show up: "They would come and say, 'You can't do this play' -- and Brian would say, 'Yes, we can, we've had counsel on this' and they'd go away. And then they'd come and say 'You can't have black and white people sitting together at the same restaurant' (we had a little place where you could have sandwiches) -- and my husband would say, 'This isn't a restaurant, it's an art gallery. Can't you see we've got this photographic exhibition? Art galleries are open to people of all races.' "

Meanwhile, their theater had no funding except from the people who "joined the club," and Astbury kept ticket prices low enough that nobody would be excluded for lack of money. The whole enterprise, Bryceland says, was exhausting. But at least the government didn't close it down.

In retrospect, Bryceland realizes that their work was filled with a yeasty optimism about social reform as well as art: "We thought, at that stage, that there was still time. And although we didn't think that theater could change anything by itself, we thought that theater had a very serious role to play in change in South Africa."

In fact, Bryceland points out, legal segregation in theaters was subsequently ended (in 1986), and two apartheid provisions that Fugard's plays attacked -- the Immorality Act and the pass laws -- were eventually rescinded (in 1985 and 1986). "One doesn't say that the pass laws were changed because 'Sizwe Banzi' was written and was hugely successful all over the world and in South Africa. But if I thought that the theater had no part at all to play, then I think -- I don't think, I knowI would give it up."

Although Bryceland hasn't given up politically committed theater, she has left South Africa permanently. "I was running out of steam there. I wanted to do interesting work, but I was running out of directors to work with. Athol had more or less left South Africa, and was working at Yale a lot."

She and Astbury felt The Space's role in political theater had become a little dicey. "We were becoming a kind of a shackle to the black people who were working with us. In the townships, people were saying to them, 'Why are you working with these white people? Your place is here.' People in the townships were hassling the black actors and playwrights who worked with us. It was wonderful the way we were working together, but it just couldn't last."

For several years, Bryceland had gone back and forth to London performing Fugard's plays -- including "Boesman and Lena," "Statements After an Arrest" and "Hello and Goodbye." Then, in 1978, Edward Bond offered her the role of Hecuba in his antiwar play "The Woman" at the National Theater of Great Britain. She and Astbury decided it was time to move on.

Although Bryceland still visits South Africa every few years (one of her three daughters lives there), she finds the situation increasingly unbearable. "I'm just very unhappy there. A kind of bitterness comes into my life -- because nothing changes. They're just hurtling toward disaster, and people are still as deaf and blind and dumb as they ever were. I just don't have the kind of soul that can embrace revolution and violence, and I can't go any further with my idea of change in South Africa. So I just have to leave. I'd be a hypocrite if I said I countenance the full catastrophe and countenance violence. I can't."

"The Road to Mecca" puts Bryceland right back in her native world. Although apartheid forms the background rather than the subject of Helen's story, the play makes a political statement: "For me, it is an intensely personal play about South Africa," Fugard says. "In South Africa, we're still fighting, dying for personal freedom, to be able to live your life and do with your life as you wish. Helen's struggle for freedom against these villagers in this little town of New Bethesda in the Karoo is symbolic for me of a very real fight that people have to put up with for all sorts of other reasons. Obviously the big one is a black skin. Helen Martins is a metaphor for the whole struggle -- a lonely, solitary female artist in that godforsaken world fighting for her freedom."

Fugard based the character of Helen on an elderly recluse who lived in the isolated village where he had bought a cottage. After her husband died, this woman, Helen Niemand, had begun to sculpt fabulous, pagan-looking creatures in concrete and broken glass, to the horror of her good Calvinist neighbors. Fugard used to walk past her garden and nod in greeting, but they never spoke. Two years after Fugard first saw her, Helen Niemand committed suicide.

Some time later, a young social worker who had been Helen's only friend toward the end of her life gave Fugard a snapshot of herself with Helen -- "the one this aging, birdlike, sly, elusive little artist, and the other one this strong, well-bred, very, very moral woman." That photograph helped him shape the dynamic of "The Road to Mecca." But, he says, his script provides no more than half of the Helen the audience sees. "The other half comes from Yvonne's performance. We have to take equal credit."

Playing Helen has required a painfully personal exploration for Bryceland. "I didn't know Helen, so I've invested her with a lot of my mother's characteristics. I almost can't separate my mother and Helen Martins." Like Helen, she says, her mother had a rich inner life that nobody suspected. But, she adds, still sorting out that identification, her mother did not share Helen's forlorn panic: "Helen had these strange compulsions to make things. And so I think that made her more desperate than my mother. I think 'desperate' is a good word for me to remember. That belongs to Helen and it doesn't belong to my mother."

Though Fugard meant the play to end on a note of affirmation, Bryceland sees it in a darker way. "I know the truth about Helen, and I can't in my soul think she comes back from her despair, because I know she didn't."

Bryceland's performance "tells as much about Bryceland as about Helen," Fugard says, which is exactly as he feels it should be. "It tells you about her humors, it tells you about her terrors -- make no mistake about it, Yvonne has her terrors. And it tells you about her consuming vision, the vision she's tried to reveal as an artist. Bryceland as artist and Helen as artist -- they're intertwined. You've got an alloy up there of Helen's soul and Bryceland's soul."