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STAGE REVIEW : Fugard’s ‘Road to Mecca’ a Well-Fashioned Play

Times Theater Critic

Drama doesn’t need to shout. A quiet “How do you take your tea?” can be a declaration of war, as in Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca,” at South Coast Repertory.

Elsa (Christine Healy) is pouring--"being Mother” at the request of her older friend Helen (Nan Martin), who has been having some trouble with her hands.

They are sitting in Helen’s living room, entertaining Marius, Helen’s pastor (Alan Mandell), who has just dropped by with some fresh vegetables from his garden.

Marius also has a paper that he would like Helen to sign--if convenient. It would allow her to enter the old people’s home, as they have been discussing. Not that there is any hurry about this.

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In fact, seeing that Helen has a guest, perhaps Marius should return tomorrow. He doesn’t want to intrude.

Not at all, says Helen’s young friend from the city, who thinks she knows exactly what the pastor’s game is. How do you take your tea?

This is an old-fashioned play. People keep their voices civil and do not necessarily speak their minds, although it is clear that they have minds.

When the time does come to say something, however, it will be said in full. Perhaps a little too much in full. It’s never “Now listen” in “The Road to Mecca.” It’s always “Now listen to me, Helen. Listen to me very carefully.”

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This is characteristic of Fugard’s dialogue and can make for heavy watching. It takes fine actors to present Fugard’s characters not as stuffy creatures but as serious people, people who would rather be considered tedious than superficial.

Martin Benson’s cast has caught the honor and gravity of Fugard’s characters without being prolix. Nan Martin manages this by making Helen a woman who must fight to keep her body and her mind under control. In her old age, the tendency--the temptation--is for her to be scattered and manic, her state at the start of the play.

“My hands will keep me sane,” Helen says at one point. (She is an artist--or was.) But those hands must now be monitored, and this calls for will power. Helen’s journey in the play is toward wholeness and calm, and Martin accomplishes it beautifully.

Mandell takes a different approach to Pastor Marius than Fugard did when he played the role Off Broadway last season. Marius is not to be seen as a conscious hypocrite--that’s what’s interesting about him--but Fugard made him a very stiff-backed sort of saint.

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Mandell makes him humbler and more appealing, a man who didn’t enter the ministry in order to control people but in order to help them. His principles never waver, but he understands the human equation, and his capitulation at the end has real grace and real pain.

Healy has the toughest acting job. Helen’s young friend is given more than one chance to report on her problems, but doesn’t actually get a chance to demonstrate them. There are moments when one suspects that she’s been given those problems to bring her into emotional parity with the other two characters. Healy banishes these doubts--or almost--with a superb cry for help in the last act.

If Fugard meant “Mecca” as a harrowing play, it isn’t. But it’s a searching one, a thoughtful examination of matters that, in De Maupassant’s phrase, “do not occur to the young.” Interesting, then, that a young person leaving the theater said that she loved the play because so much of it applied to her life.

It’s typical of the evening that we don’t get to see Helen’s garden sculptures, the ones that have made her suspect in the community. All we see is her eccentric living room (designed by Michael Devine), and not until the candles are lit do we see it as its own sculpture. Drama doesn’t need to shout.

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Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Closes Feb. 16. Tickets $19-$26. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. (714) 957-4033.


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