'The Road to Mecca' leads to delightful place

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There are many lovely aspects about "The Road to Mecca," yet the first must be to acknowledge its leading lady.

Rosemary Harris made her Broadway debut 60 years ago, an astounding milestone, even more so because she turns in a brilliant performance in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Athol Fugard's play at American Airlines Theatre.

The limited engagement through March 4 focuses on two women coming to terms with their lives. Harris plays Miss Helen, an artist who lives in the remote outpost of New Bethesda, South Africa, a tiny village in the Karoo.

Carla Gugino ("Desire Under the Elms" on Broadway and "Karen Sisco" on TV) is wonderful as Helen's 31-year-old friend, Elsa. A teacher with a strong sense of justice and outrage, Elsa drives 12 hours straight from Cape Town, worried desperately about Helen, whose last letter hinted at suicide.

Helen lives alone with her art, in what is the most magnificent set. If this were TV, some producer would be saying how it is another character. In this, it is. 

Two-time Tony Award winner Michael Yeargan created an enchanting set of an old house, awash in color, glitter and fairy lights. Miss Helen favors owls, camels and mythical creatures, and grinds up old bottles to make the glitter. In so doing, she has knotted her hands and distanced her tiny village.

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For a play to go on as long as this one does - and it does go on for two and a half hours - there must be a conflict. And all get their share. Besides the two women, there is Marius Byleveld ( Jim Dale, the voice of the Harry Potter audio books), a widower in love with Helen.

Helen and Elsa are strong, wonderful women facing a segregated, male-dominated society in rural South Africa in 1974. They became friends when Miss Helen asked Elsa which way was Mecca some years back, and they stayed friends.

They share the sort of bond women do when they talk all night, baring their souls and trying to figure out life. Elsa is a teacher who has been brought up on disciplinary charges for assigning her students an essay about racial inequality. She could be conciliatory and beg for her job back, though it's not bloody likely.

Elsa tells Helen that visiting her is "like stepping into a Chekov play."

Elsa is also coming out of an affair with a married man, which ended about as well as those usually do. She's furious about the racism in her country and frustrated with pretty much everything.

As the women talk, Elsa asks Helen what she wants to know. "Everything you would have told me in your letters, if you had kept your promises and written them," Helen says.

Helen is the town outcast, though this is the town in which she was born, reared, married and widowed. She has become afraid - afraid of the darkness. Steeped in symbolism, sometimes a bit obviously, the play confronts the fears of aging, being alone, hatred and racism. She is almost cut off from the rest of the village.

The pastor, Marius, tries to cajole Helen into moving into a home for the aged. Though it would be easy to see him as nothing more than the overly pious cleric who thinks he knows more than everyone, there is more to him.

There is more to each of them, and it's a delightful night to watch them peel away the layers to reveal their inner lights.

Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus