Set in 1970s South Africa, the Madison Theatre Guild production of The Road to Mecca is a rich narrative that unfolds completely within the unusually decorated walls of an elderly Afrikaner woman's home. This play by Athol Fugard is based loosely on the life and work of self-taught artist Helen Martins, who filled her yard with concrete statues and transformed the inside of her home ("The Owl House") with crushed glass and bright paint.
Yesterday, on opening night, a gorgeous set filled the Bartell Theatre's Drury Stage. Windows hung at different levels to form the outline of the rooms of a house; a few of them were painted with smiling suns that sparkled and glowed throughout the show. Outside the "walls" of the house, three mosaicked crows and a cement sculpture (the latter by Wisconsin artist Wouterina De Raad) stood as symbols of Miss Helen's masterpiece: her Mecca.
Throughout the first half of the show, Miss Helen's art environment is mentioned in passing, but in the second act, it becomes a character of its own. Her work has not only altered her surroundings; it has transformed her life. Despite the beauty she's made and the joy her work has brought her, Miss Helen lives a solitary life, visited only by a local girl, the village pastor and Elsa, a young teacher from Cape Town. Miss Helen's sculptures -- an eclectic mix of creatures that range from peacocks to owls to the wise men -- are viewed with skepticism by the other villagers.
Sarah Whelan's portrayal of Miss Helen highlights the character's vulnerability and mischievousness. At first, her Afrikaner accent was a bit distracting, but she settled into it as the show progressed. I also got hung up a bit on the thick, Germanic-sounding accent in a speech by Marius Byleveld, the local pastor, played by Sam D. White. At times, it made the character feel too one-dimensional and clichéd. But White does a fine job of surprising the audience with Byleveld's own hidden vulnerability.
All of the characters in this show are complex, but Elsa, Miss Helen's young friend, is the most outwardly so. Sarah O'Hara offers a remarkable performance, managing her character's nuances and surprises naturally. Her British accent is so believable that I stopped noting it after just a few minutes.
This show explores too many themes to list. On the surface, it's a simple play -- a young woman visits an old lady -- but it probes deep. Concepts of race, women's rights, religion and love surface organically throughout the play, without ever feeling forced or preachy. This production of The Road to Mecca gets you thinking without telling you what to think. Similarly, the play's conflict is resolved near the end, but it's not tied up with too neat a bow.
Like the artwork Miss Helen made with concrete and broken glass, The Road to Mecca is built of simple things: three actors, one set and a straightforward premise. And like Miss Helen's wild sculptures and glittery paintings, from the most basic elements comes something that really shines.