The hoary old playwright of the South African Experience™, Athol Fugard has written dozens of learn-and-grow plays—few characters, often in a house, sometimes in a single, long scene, talking through matters personal and political—and has mastered the form. Fugard scripts are actors' scripts, conversations that unfold like sonatas, wandering across a continent's worth of emotional terrain, picking up embellishments and emotional weight before returning home.
Written in 1984 and based on a true story, The Road to Mecca concerns an eccentric rural widow named Miss Helen (Dee Maaske) who has turned her house into a temple of light, covering the walls with shiny tiles and ground glass and mirrors, filling it with candles and cement sculptures of owls, camels, and the magi. An unctuous and conservative local minister (Terry Edward Moore) is pushing Helen to leave her eccentric project—later, losing his cool, he condemns it as "idolatry"—and move into the church-owned Sunshine House for the Aged. Miss Helen's impetuous young friend Elsa (Marya Sea Kaminski), on one of her rare visits from Cape Town, insists she stay and hold her freaky fort. The minister and the idealist battle for Miss Helen's soul while she, worried about her recent descent into feebleness and depression, wrings her hands and frets.
Fugard, as always, is writing about the predicament of South Africa, but the actors, directed by Leigh Silverman, never abdicate the humanity of their characters for political symbolism. Maaske walks the tension between Helen's independence, once quietly fierce but now eroding with the nervousness and infirmity of age. She scratches at her short, white hair and worries in a voice that retains a core of strength beneath its old-lady warble. Helen wants to stay, for her sake and for Elsa's—Elsa is brash and rude and neglectful, but clings to the idea of Helen and her sweet constancy as a psychological life ring against drowning in bitterness of fading youth, with its bad romances and social despair. Moore's character is just a plot device, a serpent masking his provincial disgust with it's-for-your-own-good condescension—watching these two women wrestle with their doubts is the tough heart of The Road to Mecca.