Athol Fugard’s Triumphant Sculptor Builds Her Mecca at Home
by Patricia L. Morin
Athol Fugard’s 2011 “The Road to Mecca” touches an issue many senior citizens face today, especially the baby boomers. What happens when your special love has died, and you are old and alone, feeling as though darkness has diminished your inner light?
Miss Helen, played expertly by Wendy vanden Heuvel, has lost her way. Based on a true story, eccentric Helen, a South African sculptor, questions her identity and her self-worth. As Helen, Heuvel covers a bountiful array of emotional nuances.
In 1974, in a nowhere desert town a 12-hour drive from Cape Town, Miss Helen’s neighbors want her to sign a paper giving up everything. The community, including religiously myopic Father Marius (forthright Victor Talmadge), urges her to move into his church’s nursing home. Like families today, relatives will impose their opinions on elders. They may even move elders into assisted living— where they must give up their home, their freedom, and their past.
Cunningly, Talmadge leaves us wondering about Marius’ real intentions, especially since Miss Helen has given up her Christian values. Helen asserts, “They are as merciless as the religion they preach around here.” She has no regrets but has difficulty saying no to Marius.
Scenic Designer Erik Flatmo has created an intricate and intimate three-dimensional home with bedroom and an antique living room with candles and mirrors to invoke a fantasy. Helen’s sculptural figures in stone decorate her home and garden giving the impression that she is “sequestered” by her art.
School teacher and powerhouse feminist, Elsa Barlow (vibrant Kodi Jackman) drives the 12 hours to arrive unexpectedly at her friend’s home. Elsa comes to discuss a distressing letter from Helen. She reads it aloud as Helen cowers, confronting her friend about her death wish.
In her beautiful monologue, Heuval shares Helen’s visual inner life. Her “inner” pictures lead her to create the cement statues, which give her purpose. Purpose is crucial for elders, as they question themselves and seek new ways of visualizing their lives.
Helen crafts a garden of statues facing east to Mecca, a peaceful place she sees in her mind as her “pictures” fade. Amidst her houseful of candles, she fears the invading darkness, a darkness that is diminishing the candlelight.
Helen confides in Elsa about the contract with the nursing home, needing Elsa’s strength to face the Reverend who will be there later.
Act II explodes when Rev. Marius tells Elsa that the candles set the house on fire, a fact that Miss Helen did not share with Elsa. They argue over Helen’s issues of life and death, trust and distrust, dependence and freedom.
Director Timothy Near makes time fly, orchestrating speech and action delicately. We hang on every word.
“The Road to Mecca” touches us deeply, an important play to see and reflect upon. We are all involved in the questions Fugard raises. I wonder: Will I have a picture, a purpose, before my candle burns out and darkness overwhelms me?
“The Road to Mecca” by Athol Fugard, directed by Timothy Near, by Weathervane Productions, at Z Below, San Francisco. Info: ZSpace.org – to June 25, 2023.
Cast: Wendy vanden Heuvel, Kodi Jackman, and Victor Talmadge.
Banner photo: Wendy vanden Heuvel & Kodi Jackman. Photos: Kevin Berne