The Road to Mecca | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Road to Mecca 

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THE ROAD TO MECCA, Raven Theatre. The Athol Fugard plays that deal directly with apartheid, like Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (1974), may have lost some urgency. But others, like the 1984 Road to Mecca, explore deeper metaphors for a divided country. Here Fugard divides South Africa into three people, then makes each individual matter beyond whatever he or she symbolizes. Elsa Barlow is an impatient reformer who wants to free her elderly friend Helen from fealty to her Afrikaner past. Marius Byleveld is the staunch pastor mutely in love with Helen who wants to take her away from the "immoral" sculpture garden she's built; he intends to put her in a nursing home.

But both are fighting for a soul already secure. One of Fugard's most magnetic creations, Helen is an artist at one with the candlelit, fancifully mirrored cottage she's erected on the edge of the Great Karoo desert. And her ethic of art over despair, Fugard implies, can heal a broken nation.

Despite some unconvincing accents, Scott Shallenbarger's staging honors the poetry of a compassionate script. Esther McCormick gives the humanistic Helen a serene rage against the dying of the light, JoAnn Montemurro captures Elsa's tough love and daughterly devotion, and Larry Wiley presents Marius as a puritan who can still credit beauty when he's shown it. Michael Menendian's magical cottage hints at the creative fires that burn all the brighter in Helen as she faces the final darkness.

--Lawrence Bommer

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