PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Road to Mecca — The Dark at the Top of the Stares

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Road to Mecca — The Dark at the Top of the Stares
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca starring Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino and Jim Dale.

Rosemary Harris; guests Santino Fontana, Alexandra Silber and Neil Simon
Rosemary Harris; guests Santino Fontana, Alexandra Silber and Neil Simon Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


The stage of Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, where The Road to Mecca opened Jan. 17, is scrupulously under-lit by lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, who employs a dozen or so flickering candles on stage around a luminous, lit-from-within Rosemary Harris.

The 84-year-old actress, in a real bear of a role, plays "Miss Helen" Martins, an Afrikaner widow who has spent the past 15 years cluttering her garden with sculptures she has created out of a suddenly freed imagination. They are viewed with alarm as pagan artifacts by her provincial neighbors in the small village of New Bethesda in the Karoo desert region of South Africa. The glares and gossiping bring on "a darkness inside" that inhibits her creatively. Small boys throw stones at her.

Desperate and depressed, she dashes out an S.O.S. to a schoolteacher friend, thirtysomething Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), who drives 12 hours from Cape Town to her rescue. Act One is largely, and leisurely, devoted to unpacking the emotional baggage of both women. Conflict arrives just before the curtain falls in the form of Rev. Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), a smiling Samaritan hoping to sweep "Miss Helen" out of heathen home and hearth and into an old-folks home next to his church. Act Two becomes a lively tussle for her creative spirit that politically reflects the repression that the South African government inflicted on its populace during the 1970s.

The real story of "Miss Helen" has a more tragic end than is presented here — fearing her art and freedom will be taken from her, she suicides — but one of her neighbors, Athol Fugard, has provided her a happy ending that life denied her and scored a few salient points against the oppressive apartheid government of the time. After the play, Harris betrayed no loss of radiance. If anything, the experience seemed to energize her — and she generously received all who came her way.

"I was looking forward to it for the first time," she said. "Most opening nights you don't look forward to that much, but I sorta knew we had something lovely to show, to reveal. It was not just me. I knew they would eat Jim up — and Carla, my gosh!

"It's all thanks to Athol, you know. It was wonderful having him here. He came towards the end of our rehearsals, and he was so helpful. When we asked him specific questions, he would just say, 'Oh, no. Do whatever you like.' He doesn't guard his precious text, which, of course, he should do because it's sublime."


So what is it like to have 60 uninterrupted minutes on stage with Rosemary Harris? "It's a dream, it's a blessing and it's a blast," Gugino responded. "She's really incredible, and we have so much fun. I respect her so much, but I think most of all what I respect about her is what an incredible and generous human being she is."

Her other blessing was having Fugard around. "He's extraordinary. As a person, what I was so taken with is that he is such a humanist. He really is. He is deeply connected to his own emotions. He's incredibly gifted, and he's super-passionate so that every time he has a thought or an observation, it comes from a really human perspective. His voice has been quite heard in this production, that's for sure."

Where Fugard didn't have any weight and sway was Dale's accent. Even though Fugard also acts and indeed played Byleveld previously, Dale saw fit not to emulate the playwright's manner of speaking. "It's so bloody broad I couldn't possibly use his normal accent. There is a time when you can use an accent that's so broad and you're so good at it — that the audience can't understand one word, and that's wrong. Everybody in that audience is entitled to hear every word you're saying."

Instead, Dale borrowed the accent of the lead in "District 9, a film about a spacecraft over Johannesburg. "I watched it three or four times — that's how the accent began."

This role is close to a villain as Dale has come, but you may not notice because he plays it lightly like a Bible-Belt Barnum, conning people into his own agenda. His natural lightness leaves the distinct impression that he is doing the role for the first time. "It should be that way," he contended. "It's the first time that the audience is seeing the play so it should look like it's the first time that you're doing it."

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Even before applause for the evening's performance subsided, paparazzi and camera crews were forming their press gauntlet in the theatre's long corridor entranceway — including Richie Ridge, gamely carrying on his "Broadway Beat" without his ace cameraman of 30 years, Bradshaw Smith, who died of a stroke the day before. The sadness of those who've worked alongside him was palpable.

Director Gordon Edelstein met the press first, praising his "thoroughbred" cast down the line, then bolted — and not for the post-show party-site.

Fugard went him one better by also skipping the press line. Opening nights are, after a half-century, still hard for him — and he has three more coming up this year, an 80th birthday present from Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre inaugurating its new home with his Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa! and The Train Driver.

A few doors down from the theatre on 42nd Street, at the agreeably overstuffed B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, first-nighters were treated (as is Roundabout's wont) to two ROKK Vodka-based, play-inspired specialty cocktails: "The Karoo Cocoction" utilizes cranberry juice; "Elsa's Artificial Sweetener," O.J. (In Mecca, Elsa's "artificial sweetener" is the same as high-strung Sheila's in A Chorus Line: Valium.)

Judith Ivey and Maria Tucci both came in support of different people but wound up at the same table, shop-talking about their upcoming plans. Two-time Tony winner Ivey was there for director Edelstein, who recently steered her through a marvelous Amanda Wingfield. Right now, she's bracing for her Broadway-directing debut, waiting for a theatre to revive Beth Henley's 1984 The Miss Firecracker Contest with "Ugly Betty" Emmy winner America Ferrera. Acting-wise, "I'm staying close to home because it's my son's senior year in high school. I've turned down some stuff. It hasn't been too hard, but there have been a couple of things where you thought, 'Hurry up! Go to college!'"

Tucci, who co-starred Off-Broadway with James Earl Jones and Harris Yulin in an early Fugard (1980's A Lesson From Aloes), is quietly turning playwright herself these days — but, for the immediate present, is rebounding to the stage (the DR2) for Michel Wallerstein's Flight.

Amy Irving and Kenneth Bowser
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Another who was touching the past was Amy Irving. When she originated the role of Elsa in 1988's Off-Broadway production of The Road to Mecca, opposite Fugard and the late Yvonne Bryceland, she was Mrs. Steven Spielberg, and he attended her opening night, creating some commotion. This time she was accompanied by her third director-husband, Kenneth Bowser.

Gugino's support team hailed from her last Roundabout show, Suddenly, Last SummerBlythe Danner, Becky Ann Baker and Karen Walsh (her Mecca understudy). "Carla Gugino's a great, great friend — I'd see her read the phone book," cracked Baker, who came alone to the party. Dylan Baker, her actor husband, "is in L.A., casting a movie he's going to direct," she said. "It's his first feature, '23 Blast.' It's a football film — a true story about a young boy in Kentucky who went blind from a virus but was a natural, gifted athlete. He played football for his high school football team. He didn't throw the ball, thank goodness. He carried the ball, and they went to playoffs and did really well. It's a pretty exciting story."

Gordana Rashovich, A Shayna Maidel in her day (1987) and an Obie-winning one as well, has been doing understudy work for Roundabout in recent years. "I did go on for Olympia Dukakis in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, but I haven't gone on for Rosemary Harris," she said, "nor do I expect to. Rosemary's a very sturdy, agile actress. We both trained at the same school and were taught, 'Unless you're dead, you go on.' We both hold to that credo."

A couple of director-choreographers with Roundabout pasts — Kathleen Marshall and her former assistant, Rob Ashford — put in appearances despite their dizzyingly busy schedules of late. She's going from last season's Anything Goes to this season's Nice Work If You Can Get It, which really is nice work, and he's going from last season's How To Succeed to showing Ricky Martin the right moves for this season's Evita.

Has anyone mentioned that Michelle Williams owes her Golden Globe to Marshall for choreographing her through some inserted Marilyn Monroe routines in "My Weekend With Marilyn," thus legitimately lifting her out of Meryl Streep's slam-dunk dramatic category and into an easy-win musical category?

Ashford has movie news as well. His "new flick" — Dori Berinstein's documentary, "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" — shows him gingerly guiding La Channing through a number for the Kennedy Center salute to Jerry Herman. The movie, set for release Jan. 20, has been drawing big cry-for-happy responses at its preview screenings. It's quite a love offering, all right. One priceless moment shows Angela Lansbury, Channing and Chita Rivera going over their lyrics together, each one of them in the process defining why she's a star.

Jim Dale
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Santino Fontana, the king of workshops/readings (Yank! and Lorenzaccio) and Roundabout's golden boy of late (via Sons of the Prophet and The Importance of Being Earnest), was drinking in his first Fugard, "enjoying being in the audience." Tony Roberts was beaming about his new movie, "The Longest Week," with Jason Bateman, Olivia Wilde and Billy Crudup. "I play a psychiatrist," he announced with an incredulous expression. "Lie down. "I'll take care of everything you want."

A heavy-duty Tony winner for Side Man, Warren Leight was almost giddy about getting back on the Main Stem when Leap of Faith begins previews April 3. Lest we forget, "it's my first musical on Broadway since Mayor," he said. "That show moved from the Village Gate, which is now a Duane Reade, to a theatre that was torn down about six weeks after we left. And I don't believe they demolish buildings just because of my work." The songwriter of Mayor, Charles Strouse, said the buzz about a spring workshop of his musical on Sammy Davis Jr., Yes I Can!, is bogus. No it won't.

The book writer and the lyricist of She Loves MeJoe Masteroff and Sheldon Harnick — were in attendance, as were the costume designer, scenic designer and leading man of Roundabout's 1993-4 revival: Jane Greenwood, Tony Walton and Boyd Gaines, the latter with his actress-wife, Kathleen McNenny. Other celebrity couples present: Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick, The Addams Family's Roger Rees and Jersey Boys' Rick Elice, playwright Neil Simon and his Sugar, Elaine Joyce.

Also: Kate Mulgrew of Tea at Five, Edward Hibbert, Harris' two-time Tony-winning daughter Jennifer Ehle, writer-director James Lapine, playwright Stephen Karam, Equity's Nick Wyman, agent George Lane, Chinglish producer Dasha Epstein, Master Class' Alexandra Silber, two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones, The Unsinkable Molly Brown reviser Dick Scanlan and Colman Domingo, the Scottsboro Boy who'll bow Feb. 16 in Fugard's Blood Knot over at Signature Center, a few blocks down on West 42nd Street.


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