Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino
in The Road to Mecca
(© Joan Marcus)
Rosemary Harris and Carla Gugino
in The Road to Mecca
(© Joan Marcus)
Gordon Edelstein's new production of Athol Fugard's The Road to Mecca, now at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, fails to pick up steam until the second act. But even the most patience-tested audience member should hunker down and stay until the end. Fugard has too much of vital importance to say about human interaction for substance-hungry patrons to miss any of the show's two-and-a-half-hours.

The play, set in 1974, focuses on elderly artist Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), who lives 800 miles north of Capetown, South Africa and is isolated from her isolated New Bethesda village and from the predominantly Afrikaner villagers among whom she's lived for her nearly 70 years.

One of the few people ostensibly standing by her is Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), the minister who thinks the best thing the physically and symbolically arthritic Miss Helen can do for herself is move to a suddenly available room at a nearby retirement home.

Helen has sent her friend Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino), a young teacher, a distressing letter in which she explains her need to make a decision -- based on Marius' biased advice -- about her future. The concerns the decision raises are the cause of combative behavior when the visiting Elsa and Helen come face to face in Helen's eccentrically decorated cottage.

Eventually, Marius arrives to cajole Helen into signing herself into the home against Elsa's recommendations -- and this interaction is the heart of the play. Indeed, it's the crux of Fugard's argument for the artist prevailing in a society intent on repressing the frightening individuality of spirit that artistry implies.

Unfortunately, Fugard has stretched out the introductory sequences, where Helen and Elsa swap a whole lot of grousing about themselves and each other -- surely more than needed for their personalities to be established and the necessary exposition to be dispatched. Had Fugard trimmed those scenes and gotten to Marius' arrival more efficiently, he would have greatly improved the work's dramatic structure.

But the script's problems are added to by Edelstein, who can't find a way to overcome this early tedium. Almost as troublesome is the looming set by Michael Yeargan. For a three-hander that calls for the intimacy -- or the illusion of intimacy -- of people confronting one another at close quarters, the sprawling home Helen inhabits here sucks the air out of these close encounters.

But if for too long it feels as if Helen, Elsa and Marius are being viewed through the wrong end of the telescope, Edelstein succeeds well before fade-out in bringing out the best that the extremely estimable Harris, Gugino, and Dale (who has the firmest grasp on the South African accent challenge) have to offer.