A terrible darkness has lifted. You're aware of it the minute Athol Fugard starts to speak. There's a vigor to his voice, a vivacity to his eyes, a quickness to his manner that approaches the birdlike. It was not always like this. At 57, he is one of the world's most prominent playwrights -- a man who has persistently confronted the demons of apartheid that ravage South Africa. Out of the painful and desperate realities of his homeland, he has forged such powerful dramas as " 'Master Harold' ... and the Boys," "A Lesson From Aloes," "The Blood Knot" and "Boesman and Lena." With its leathery, sunbaked features and grizzled beard, his face often seemed to invite brooding. A perpetual squint made his small eyes smaller. Imbued with the fierce work ethic of the Afrikaners, fun didn't come easily to him. You could tell at a glance. And yet the impression he conveys on this particular afternoon, as he catches a bite between rehearsals at the Kennedy Center, is one of buoyancy. Exaltation even. It's as if he had got faith, found a way out of the woods, passed from black-and-white to Technicolor. Six years ago, Fugard recognized the awful toll that liquor was taking on his life and the havoc it was playing with the relationships he counted most precious. "The more success came," he says, looking back, "the more scared I was of failing and the more I drank. Before any interview, I'd down a couple of shots. I still look at the bottle with great reverence. I had some great times with Jack Daniel's and a pack of Camels. Oh, man! But what a false courage it gave me. "My life was such a mess. Any lush can cry at the drop of a hat. You can turn on the emotion and it looks like the real thing. You fool people with your tears. I became a liar. Someone once said that alcoholics don't make friends, they take hostages. That's the long and short of it." Fugard still isn't sure how he managed to quit. He claims to have little willpower and "basically, I went the course alone." He did take up jogging and now runs as zealously as he used to drink. Maybe, he speculates, he's merely substituted one addiction for another. Once beyond the pain of withdrawal, however, he realized that his whole being was going through an exhilarating metamorphosis. "I had no idea of the extent to which alcoholism, the disease, permeates every level of your existence -- moral, physical, imaginative," Fugard says. "It's a cancer of your complete being. But to arrest its growth means that you are going to experience exciting changes, and not just physical. I suddenly had all this surplus energy and yet I was sleeping only a fraction of what I used to, when my good-night kiss from life was two double Jack Daniel's and I'd hit the sack with a thud. I read more now. I write faster. "But even more profound changes take place on other levels. I find that I have a certain eagerness to live what's left of my life, an eagerness to get on with the work that's to be done. Imagine a child finding a toy, with which he will never be bored. He gets this extraordinary toy on his sixth birthday, and until the day he dies at age 86 he will never exhaust its potential for delight. That is what my head feels like now. I mean that." Fugard is wearing sweats and running shoes -- rehearsal clothes that allow him, whenever rehearsal breaks, to take to the towpath along the C&O Canal. A cup of tea and a cheese sandwich constitute his late afternoon lunch. He eats the sorry-looking fare with apparent relish. "Over the years, I've had a long and bitter debate with myself over the efficacy of what I was doing," he continues. "Did my words on paper make any contribution to an embattled situation in a repressive country? At times, I nearly lost faith, although not quite. That's a magical thread, and once it's broken I don't think you can ever tie it back together again. But it came very close to happening. "Gradually, I have resolved that debate for myself. I finally have enormous belief in the power of literature and the spoken word. That's not a naive optimism. It's not 'Hallelujah, I've seen the light!' It's been a hard-fought battle. If anything, after all those years of being an alcoholic and looking at the world in which I live, I'm more aware than ever of how finely balanced the light and the dark are." The transformation in the playwright is uncannily reflected in the play, "The Road to Mecca," which has brought him to the Kennedy Center. Currently in previews in the Eisenhower Theater (it opens on Wednesday), it is among the most personal works Fugard has written, although he maintains he is a part of all his characters -- females as well as males; blacks as well as whites; traitors as well as betrayed. His heroine this time is Helen Martins, an eccentric sculptress in New Bethesda, a small, conservative town in the arid region of the Karoo. Ever since her husband's death 15 years earlier, she has devoted herself to making bizarre sculptures out of concrete and broken glass. They fill her garden -- camels and peacocks, pyramids, mermaids, Magi and owls with old motor car headlights for eyes, all facing resolutely east. The townsfolk, once tolerant at best, have come to view her as a loon and the local minister is angling to commit her to an old folks home. What's more, the "inner pictures" that have long been Miss Helen's inspiration and sustenance are drying up and she's terrified of the approaching darkness. "The Road to Mecca" chronicles nothing less than the fight for her soul. There are only two other characters -- the seemingly dour minister (a role Fugard himself plays); and Helen's last remaining ally, a 31-year-old schoolteacher who, sensing a crisis, has driven from Cape Town to lend the old woman comfort and courage. How Helen recovers the will to carry on is the crux of the play. You can see many significant ways in which Helen is Fugard himself -- an artist in a strange land that has often been hostile to his artistry and has sought on occasion to silence him. Like her, he lives in terror of the days the pictures dry up. And he can't help wondering what a lifetime of making odd artifacts -- plays in his case, sculptures in hers -- amounts to in the end. Is there salvation in art? Or is it but a seductive form of idolatry? "Without any question, 'Mecca' is me trying to understand the genesis, nature and consequences of a creative energy," Fugard concedes. In the play's transcendent conclusion, the stage is bathed in the golden light of dozens of candles. Had it been written a decade or so ago, it is entirely conceivable that the shadows would have predominated. "Mecca" received what Fugard concedes was a less than satisfactory world premiere at Yale Repertory in 1984. "That first statement of the play was flawed. I didn't quite know my animal yet," he explains. "It's not often that I have that problem. But the reaction was negative. I took it pretty badly. My insecurities leapt up and savaged me." It wasn't until the following year, when he himself performed the play in South Africa, opposite the magnificent South African actress Yvonne Bryceland, that he began to understand its rare chemistry. A triumph, that production was later transferred to the National Theatre in London, then invited to the Spoleto festival in Charleston, S.C. From there, it was a short jump to off-Broadway, where "Mecca" was hailed as a major artistic event of the 1987-88 season. Before moving on to other plays -- he has one, "My Africa, My Children," ready to go into production in New York in November; a second has come together in his head and is waiting to be written -- Fugard decided to cap the "Mecca experience" by performing it "at the Kennedy," as he puts it. "The Kennedy's got a helluva reputation," he says. "You must be aware of that. In a way, to do a play at the Kennedy is to have arrived, as much as to have played on Broadway. At least, that's how I regard it. The {Kennedy Center} Honors are a great event on our television in South Africa. And Yvonne wanted passionately to come to here." Although ill health has forced Bryceland to withdraw, Fugard proclaims himself pleased with her replacement, Nan Martin. Kathy Bates, who plays the schoolteacher, took over the role from Amy Irving during the latter part of the New York run. Fugard calls her "a powerhouse" and told her, "for the sake of the work that lies between the two of us in the future, we must meet on the stage of Kennedy Center." For the younger generation, he jokes, he has become the "groggy old guru figure of South African drama." But he tries not to bother with his reputation. It's just another trap that can ensnare him, as alcohol once did. "Traps! Traps! Traps!" he says, indicating that they're everywhere. "During the run of 'Mecca' in New York, I could feel myself flowering," he says. "Because that's what happens to an actor when he stands on the stage at the end of a performance with his fellow actors. He is bowing; it's a nice, full house; and the audience is warm and appreciative. And he flowers. Living with that flowering night after night, I smelled a trap a mile off. Seduction was in the air. I thought, 'Wait a minute. I know who I am and I know what I must do.' I had to go back to South Africa and write, as I have always written." Even now, as he walks to the Kennedy Center, he occasionally catches himself thinking how far he's come from the hot and dusty rehearsal hall in Johannesburg where, 30 years ago, his first plays were performed. There was no such thing as a South African drama then, just English fare imported from London's West End. By looking to his countrymen for subject matter, Fugard almost single-handedly put a theatrical revolution in motion. Since no one else dared to touch his plays, necessity obliged him to become an actor and director, as well. But musing on the past can be a trap too. "It would be fatal to my work if I developed a consciousness about it," Fugard says. "I have very little sense of cumulative achievement. It's best to put such thoughts out of my mind and just get on with the job." A face glimpsed by the roadside, an article in the local newspaper, a faded photograph -- Fugard's inspiration is as homely as it is specific. Afrikaner on his mother's side, English on his father's, he has spent most of his life in Port Elizabeth, an industrial city on the Indian Ocean that has given him his characters, his conflicts, his settings. It is his particular gift, however, to translate the torments of that remote place into dramas of universal import that often share a startling kinship with the works of Samuel Beckett. Fugard talks of the "appointments" he has with his plays, the way a soldier of fortune might talk of his appointment with destiny. By that, he means that they germinate in his head for years, but the day invariably dawns when the writing can no longer be postponed and he must confront the blank page. For that he needs "a lovely old teak desk I've got on which I lay out my pens" and "an unbroken succession of monotonous days." His stature is such that he could live and write anywhere in the world, but he says the writing is possible only in South Africa. "In a way, what Faulkner had in the American South, I have in Port Elizabeth," he says. "Nobody gives a damn about me as a writer there. They're more interested in going fishing with me." "Mecca," like many of his plays, was born by chance. Driving through the Karoo about 12 years ago, Fugard happened upon the village of New Bethesda and was immediately captivated by it. "It's an absolute jewel, sitting there in this astonishingly fertile valley in the mountains of this semi-desert region," he says. "We're talking no more than 30 or 40 houses and a general store. I made some inquiries and learned that some of the houses were for sale. In the course of getting to know the locals, they spoke with embarrassment about Helen Martins, this rather eccentric presence in the village they had all known before she went mad, as they put it, and whose madness had taken the form of making these strange sculptures. "I strolled off in that direction, and sure enough, there was this extraordinary house and these extraordinary sculptures. She was still alive then. I never got to know her personally. But I nodded to her once or twice from afar, when she was out in her garden. Then, about two years later, after I'd bought a house there and started visiting it regularly, she committed suicide." From that point on, people in New Bethesda were forever asking Fugard when he was going to write a play about Miss Helen. "I've certainly never been reluctant with women," he says. "The great adventures of my life have all been women -- my mother, my wife, my daughter. My relationship with Helen Martins is my one reluctant love affair. I held back for so long. When I looked at her life in isolation, I just couldn't get into it. Pasteur once said, 'Accident favors the prepared mind.' Well, mine was prepared. The happy accident finally came in Cape Town, when I met a young woman who had been the last friendship in Helen's life. "This young girl had stumbled on Helen, much as I had, and their friendship had been very meaningful. As a souvenir, nothing more, she gave me a photo of herself and Helen. It's just a little snapshot of the two women facing one another. But as soon as I saw it, I knew I had my play. This tall, strong, well-built South African woman, hands on her hips, is looking down at Helen, as if to say, 'Come on, Helen, tell me the truth, whatever it is.' And facing her, also in profile, is Helen, this shy little birdlike woman, obviously full of mischief. There's so much mystery and magic in the chemistry between the two of them. At once, I knew I had the dynamic of my play." Because of "The Road to Mecca," the town that once looked askance at Helen Martins purchased her house and sculpture garden and turned it into a museum. You have to pay admission to enter. The madwoman's reputation has also been upgraded. She is now widely viewed as a folk artist. When he looks to the future, Fugard says, "I want to go right back to the beginning. I want to work in a really small space. Fifty people a night. I don't know if this is the last phase of my work, or the second-to-last phase. But the older I get, the more obsessed I am with certain basic freedoms. I want to be able to play around with space, with various forms of storytelling." Accordingly, the American premiere of Fugard's most recent drama, "My Children, My Africa," will be produced next fall by the New York Theatre Workshop in the 95-seat Perry Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. Inspired by a two-paragraph story in the Port Elizabeth newspaper, it revolves around the necklacing of a black schoolteacher by an angry black mob that suspects him of collaborating with the government. As Fugard has structured the play, however, the teacher's horrible death may lead to an understanding between the play's two other characters -- the young black man who is the teacher's star pupil and an equally bright female student from the local white school. Fugard seems to look upon it as a work of reconciliation and rebirth that amplifies the hope generated by "Mecca." He himself will direct it. John Kani, the black South African actor who collaborated with him on "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead" and "The Island" and won a Tony award for his performances in them, will play the schoolteacher. Fugard's daughter, Lisa Marie Fugard, is cast as the white student. Describing the role of the schoolteacher, Fugard observes pointedly, "he's aging, a little mad, addicted to his teaching. You might even say he's Athol Fugard in black skin." "My Children, My Africa" embodies what may be the most astounding transformation of all -- the playwright's emerging belief that South Africa, led by its youth, may well purge itself of its racial poisons. "As it so happens, after an eternity of death and despair," he explains, "the country itself is giving up a few of its addictions as well. I abhor P.W. Botha. That man has done evil things. But for him and Nelson Mandela to meet and talk -- that is extraordinary! Somehow I knew it would happen. For about two years, I've been feeling the energy that is building up day by day and pushing this society in a positive direction. "Only last week, the newspaper carried a story about 45 Afrikaner writers flying to Zimbabwe to talk with representatives of the African National Congress. A whole dialogue on the future of South Africa is underway. There's one critical latecomer to all this parlaying -- the South African government. But they're going to be there. They're going to be there." It is the youth of South Africa, however, whom he finds truly inspirational. "Black, white, brown -- they have fought their way through the attempts the system has made to condition them," he says. "They're out there, trying to understand one another, and there are enough of them to make a difference. They are a real source of hope and courage." He can't help drawing parallels with the American youth of the 1960s and the Chinese youth of Tiananmen Square. Fugard's plays detail horrible acts of cruelty and bigotry, the madness of minds cracking, the ache of exile. But now, as he gazes into the future, his eyes seem to sparkle with bright visions. And his voice takes on the sweet lilt that loving parents usually reserve for the cradle. "I cannot despair of life," he says.