Broadway's Road to Mecca, With Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino and Jim Dale, Comes to an End
By Kenneth Jones
The Broadway premiere of Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, his three-actor play about an expressive, inspirational South African artist, played by Rosemary Harris, and the forces that wish to quiet her (Jim Dale) and celebrate her (Carla Gugino), concludes its limited engagement by the not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre Company March 4. At close, it will have played 34 previews and 56 regular performances at the American Airlines Theatre.
Gordon Edelstein (Roundabout's 2010 production of The Glass Menagerie) directs the play by 2011 Special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award winner Fugard, the major playwright of South Africa, known for Master Harold…and the Boys (which Roundabout produced a revival of in 2003), Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, Exits and Entrances, The Island, Boesman and Lena and more. Fugard, an actor, playwright and director, turns 80 in 2012 and is the current resident playwright of Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company season.
Set in the 1970s, but written in the 1980s, The Road to Mecca is one of Fugard's most detailed character studies, about aged widow Miss Helen, a descendant of South Africa's Dutch settlers, who is facing mortality and artistic blockage after years of turning her home into a wild work of art punctuted with glitter, sculptures, paint and pottery pieces. Gugino plays Elsa, a young liberal teacher who makes a long trek from Cape Town to help her friend make a transition.
Here's how Roundabout Theatre Company bills The Road to Mecca: "Set in the region of South Africa known as the Karoo, The Road to Mecca tells the story of an elderly woman who has spent the years since her husband's death transforming her home into an intricate and dazzling work of art. The reclusive Miss Helen (Tony Award winner Rosemary Harris) has become depressed and appears increasingly unable to care for herself. Pastor Marius Byleveld (Tony Award winner Jim Dale), who embodies the village's conservative values, is determined to get Miss Helen into an old-age home. Her friend Elsa (Carla Gugino), a young teacher from Cape Town who is deeply suspicious of the patriarchal traditions Byleveld represents, is just as determined that Miss Helen remain free."
Fugard directed the world-premiere production of The Road to Mecca at the National Theatre in London, and later at the Promenade Theatre Off-Broadway. He played the role of Marius Byleveld in both productions. The play won the 1988 Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.
The Road to Mecca's Helen is based on the career of Helen Elizabeth Martins, who was born in 1897 in the Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. She created "The Owl House," now a national monument, starting the obsessive project in the 1940s. Martins used cement, glass and wire to decorate the interior of her home and later built sculptures in her garden. Almost all the walls of the interior of the house were covered in decorative and colorful crushed glass, according to Roundabout notes. Martins died in 1976; she took her own life.
The design team included Michael Yeargan (sets), frequent Fugard collaborator Susan Hilferty (costumes) and John Gromada (original music and sound design).
Roundabout's production of The Road to Mecca was by special arrangement with Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company, which is devoting its 2012 season to the works of Fugard. Signature christened its new home, Signature Center, with Fugard as its inaugural "Residency One" playwright. Residency One is Signature's core one-year playwright-in-residence program that produces a series of plays from the body of work of one accomplished writer. Read Playbill magazine's A Life in the Theatre profile of Fugard.
Harris was last seen on the Roundabout stage in Edward Albee's All Over (2002). She was nominated for a 2010 Tony for her turn in The Royal Family. She won the Best Actress Tony for The Lion in Winter in 1966. Gugino made her Broadway debut at Roundabout in Arthur Miller's After the Fall (2004) and returned to star in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer (2006). She also starred in a revival of Desire Under the Elms. Dale received Tony Award nominations for both of his performances at Roundabout: Joe Egg (1985) and The Threepenny Opera (2006). He won the Best Actor in a Musical Tony playing the title character in Barnum.
For tickets and information, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org or call Roundabout Ticket Services (212) 719-1300.
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