At the outset of The Road to Mecca, the Athol Fugard play in revival at the Roundabout’s Broadway space, the 31-year-old Elsa Barlow has put herself through a 12-hour drive from Cape Town to the Karoo village of New Bethesda, South Africa. She has undergone this trek to spend a day, in the autumn of 1974, with Miss Helen, a nearly 70-year-old artist who is trying to decide whether to remain in her house, which is filled with her little-appreciated sculptures, or to enter an old-age home.
Unfortunately for this well-acted, never-quite-transcendent production directed by Gordon Edelstein, I never believed that the single-minded schoolteacher Elsa would have been so moved by her initial stumbling upon the house five years earlier that she would consider the older woman an inspiration.
Initially, Fugard gives the characters all kinds of actorly business to establish the believability of their reunion, but the exposition occurs in such a hard-to-credit manner as to strain it. Even people who constantly challenge each other’s preconceptions – Miss Helen tries to attend church among the town’s Afrikaners; Elsa berates the racial attitudes of Christianity – pause occasionally simply to enjoy their friendship.
Marius Byleveld, the local pastor, poses a greater threat to Miss Helen’s way of life. His arrival at the end of the enervating first act signals that Act Two will be considerably more engaging, with the minister and the schoolteacher battling for Miss Helen’s soul.
Jim Dale, as Marius, doesn’t have a character as nuanced as those in which he has shown his value on the New York stage in the past, but it is difficult to turn away from his stern interpretation. As Elsa, Carla Gugino emits an intensity that is riveting even as she struggles to give the role humanity.
About Rosemary Harris (Miss Helen), who made her Broadway debut 60 years ago, I have never been neutral in my appreciation. I so associate her with headstrong or regal women that it is nearly a shock to watch her play someone losing her grip. Of her craft, the performer herself has lost no purchase. When she defends her way of life at the drama’s end – her need to establish a mecca of art – the effect is touching.