Most of the time, the deeply personal play burbles out of a playwright’s consciousness at the start of a career. In “The Road to Mecca,” South Africa’s Athol Fugard breaks with that erratic tradition by offering his most personal drama well along in his playwriting years.
This chamber piece for three voices, which opened Saturday at the Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, holds a few other surprises, not all of them good. It’s his talkiest play, his most densely and overtly symbolic, and it sets aside anti-apartheid themes in favor of frontal attacks on a more general Afrikaner malady: the paternalistic hypocrisy that cloaks its inherent destructiveness in a self-ennobling mantle of rectitude.
The protagonists here are all white and focused on an aging artist caught in the crossfire between the rebellious young teacher who befriends her and the protective pastor of her church.
The widowed Miss Helen (Erica Rogers) lives alone in New Bethesda, a hermetic and isolated community in the vast semi-desert of South Africa’s Karoo. She’s in her 80s and has been given to creating exotic sculptures in her house and garden ever since her husband died many years before. In the rigidly conformist Afrikaner society around her, this has set her apart as a slightly batty eccentric.
Lately, Miss Helen has been finding it harder to cope with daily living. Her friend and pastor, Marius Byleveld (Ralph Waite), wants her to move into the safe environment of a retirement home. If she wants to, of course. For her own good, of course. It would mean leaving her strange, exotic statues and other creations--the fruit of her “hobby” as Marius calls it, which, in another day and time, he points out, “might have been idolatry.”
But Miss Helen’s other friend, Elsa (Lynne Griffin), a radical young teacher from Cape Town, 800 miles away, knows that these statues are “her expressions of freedom” and that such a move away would be a sentence of death.
The many symbols of the “Road to Mecca” (starting with the title) lie in this struggle among the death-defying forces of individualism and self-realization (Miss Helen), its defenders (Elsa) and the self-righteous conformists who oppose it (Marius).
This symbolism is neatly geometric, elaborately debated and made clear to the point of becoming simplistic. Act One is spent setting up the premise and the problem (what to do with Miss Helen), Act Two is spent working it out.
What started out as a seductive layering of ideas ends up being talked to death, sometimes with a high level of passion (as in Elsa’s ardent defense of her friend’s artistic freedom or Miss Helen’s ultimate self-defense), but also always with a high degree of textual and subtextual predictability.
We know quickly that the three symbolize not only this artist but this country--this South Africa torn apart by conflicts between freedom and suppression; that the Karoo represents emotional as well as factual drought. Such overstatement, in the end, defuses the play. The lines are clever but too calculated, too reasoned, too over-explained, sapping the possibility of excitement out of the piece.
Craig Noel’s staging at the Carter falls victim to the over-symbolism and fails to generate any serious excitement of its own (except for the inventive, Watts Towersish designs by Joel Fontaine and Barth Ballard’s lights).
Noel did not make his task any easier when he cast Rogers as Miss Helen, an actress who is South African by birth and who has worked with Fugard, but who is also too young and plays age only fitfully. The gray wig, make-up and old-lady clothes alone don’t cut it, even if the accent does.
Both Waite and Griffin, on the other hand, seem to have decided to play their parts minus (or almost minus) an accent and Waite appeared uncommonly subdued as Marius opening night. Griffin comes up with the requisite level of anger and effrontery for Elsa, but she’s swimming alone and upstream. Matters may improve and performances coalesce in the running, but for the moment this “Road to Mecca” is a rocky one.
At the Simon Edison Centre for Performing Arts in Balboa Park, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 16. Tickets: $16-$25; (619) 239-2255.