The Road to Mecca | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Road to Mecca 

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THE ROAD TO MECCA, Remy Bumppo Productions, at Victory Gardens Theater. Athol Fugard's beautifully textured drama offers a tale of thwarted friendship and an allegory about an embattled artist in the closed world of apartheid South Africa. As multifaceted as the colored glass ornaments that bedeck Miss Helen's fanciful home in the arid Karroo, the play powerfully contrasts this possessed old lady with her grotesque and glorious sculptures; with Marius, her dour pastor and devoted friend; and with Elsa, the 28-year-old Cape Town schoolteacher who becomes Miss Helen's feverish defender. Will Miss Helen allow Marius to reduce her to a cramped room in a nursing home? Who will win her soul, the feminist advocate or the art-fearing minister? To Fugard's credit, the conflict remains complex, hanging in the balance even after it seems to have been resolved.

Director James Bohnen appears to relish Fugard's fundamental compassion: Bohnen's richly hued staging focuses as much on the shaded moments of truth as on the big speeches. Laura Lamson's volatile, often petulant Elsa betrays a loneliness that humanizes her smug crusading. Similarly, David Darlow quietly mellows the punitive pastor, exposing the loneliness behind his shaky righteousness. Annabel Armour's Miss Helen seems haunted even in her happy moments, but she's palpably stronger in her visions than Elsa in her radicalism or Marius in his gospel. Timothy Morrison's quirkily beautiful glass menagerie, with its banks of candles and bottles, is the perfect visual metaphor for Miss Helen. --Lawrence Bommer

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