by Lynn on May 6, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Road To Mecca

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. Written by Athol Fugard. Directed by David Storch. Set and lights by Beth Kates. Costumes by Martha Mann. Sound by Samuel Sholdice. Starring: David Fox, Diana Leblanc, Shannon Taylor.

A beautiful, sensitively rendered production of Athol Fugard’s moving play about a woman trying to survive on her own terms. Diana Leblanc gives a quietly fearless performance as the woman.

The Story. It’s 1974, in a small, isolated village of New Bethesda, in the great Karoo, a semi-desert in South Africa. Miss Helen, late sixties, lives there alone. When her husband was alive she was the dutiful wife and regular church-goer. When he died years before, her life exploded open. She began creating large sculptures of owls, statues, cherubs, mythic characters which are both inside and outside her house. Her house is also full of colour, glitter, candles and eclectic art she created.

Miss Helen has had difficulties of late. The villagers avoid her as if she is a kind of crazy lady. She’s had accidents in the house that have endangered her safety. Marius Byleveld, the local minister and a long-time friend, feels she should be better taken care of and has the solution. The situation is of such concern to Miss Helen that in one of her letters to her twenty-something friend, Elsa, she tells of her worry. The result is that Elsa drives the 800 miles from her house to Miss Helen to find out the truth.

When she arrives Elsa is exhausted and aggravated about the long ride; distressed about Miss Helen and angry about many and various things, all of which come out in the course of the play.

The Production. Beth Kates has designed a set of Miss Helen’s house, with a section off stage left, that is full of Miss Helen’s sculpture. The various owls, animals, cherubs and other shapes seem to stand guard over her. The house is full of colour, glitter windows without curtains for the most part, candles and nick-knacks on every surface. It’s a house full of meaning and art. (A quibble; if we are on the side aisle, one of the sculptures inside the house stage left, blocks our view of a piece of business that alerts Elsa that Miss Helen might have endangered herself. A designer should check every seat for a clear view not just the seats in the middle). It’s also a house that has made the locals avoid Miss Helen. Years before children threw rocks at the house because they were afraid of the strange lady inside. That hasn’t happened recently. But now the opposition to Miss Helen is subtler.

Director David Storch has illuminated the emotional roller coaster of Miss Helen’s life with his sensitive, detailed direction. At times her relationship with Elsa is tender and loving and other times it’s combative. Elsa wants Miss Helen to be tougher in dealing with her situation and Marius. This is not Miss Helen’s way. With careful blocking Storch and his gifted cast realize the heightened emotions that carefully build until the final struggle.

Miss Helen is described as “a frail, bird-like little woman….” She is played by the diminutive Diana Leblanc who gives a towering performance. Leblanc does convey the frailty and bird-like quality of Miss Helen, but also her quiet fearlessness, her quirky elegance. In this regard costume designer Martha Mann dresses Leblanc in layers of beiges and colours showing that Miss Helen’s art is not just applied to her sculpture but to herself as well.

Initially Miss Helen has a lot to hide from Elsa so Leblanc is skittish and nervous. Watch as she tries to hide her arthritic hands under her long sleeves. Leblanc is also watchful. It’s a compelling performance.

As Elsa, Shannon Taylor has that wearying fury of a person who rails because of misplaced anger. It’s stuff in her life that’s making her lash out at Miss Helen’s situation. Taylor has the confidence of a young woman who knows how to solve other people’s problems but is having difficulty doing the same for herself.

As Marius, David Fox brings his usual charm and courtliness to a man who does care for Miss Helen and wants the best for her. It’s just that he’s a blinkered, up-tight, conservative prig. While Marius has had years of quietly trying to convince his congregation to do the right thing—according to him—it’s obvious that when he calls Miss Helen’s art an ‘abomination’, that this guy doesn’t have a clue of how to deal with her.

Comment. The Road To Mecca is an emotional roller coaster of a play. Both Elsa and Marius are literally fighting for what’s best for Miss Helen with her in the middle, with her head down, just wishing they would leave her alone. The forthright attitude of Elsa and the gentler, but superior-acting Marius present an interesting dynamic. It’s quite gripping to watch and of course this fine production delicately gets you right into the thick of it. Athol Fugard gets into the heart and soul of his characters and into the heart and soul of South Africa, which is always in the background. It was good to see the play again after so many years, especially when the production is so good.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Opened: May 5, 2014
Closes: May 28, 2014
Cast: 3; 1 man, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes; one intermission


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