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Burning Coal’s ROAD TO MECCA Ponders Questions of Art, Life, and Aging

Inspired by the real-life of Helen Martins (1897-1976), a reclusive South African outsider artist, Burning Coal Theatre’s current production of Athol Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca, is a subtle unfolding, illuminating drama that both highlights the artistic struggle and the dilemma faced by older women when they attempt to maintain their independence. 

This play was first performed by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT in 1984, and was actually directed by the playwright. It was then performed in London in 1985, won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1988 for Best Foreign Play, and was adapted for film in 1991. In 2011 it had its Broadway premiere at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre.

The setting is an evening in 1974 apartheid South Africa at Miss Helen’s home, where she has created a garden of concrete sculptures, images of animals, and comical figures, most facing east. When she receives an unexpected visit from Elsa, a young teacher she befriended a few years ago, we sense their mutual devotion, even if she is a bit tetchy from her long journey and Miss Helen seems a bit agitated and distracted. We also sense that both women are holding back, each changing the subject when the other presses a topic. Issues of trust swirl an undercurrent pulling each woman down as they grab at lifelines. Eventually, both the predicament facing Miss Helen and the bitter disillusionment plaguing Elsa, rise to the surface.

So it isn’t until near the end of the first act that we begin to fully understand what is at stake for Miss Helen: her freedom to remain in her home. Although appalled by her idolatry and her self-imposed exile from the church, the well-meaning local pastor, Marius, cares deeply for her, believing she needs to move to a euphemistically titled Sunshine House. The second act then becomes a confrontation between Marius and Elsa over Miss Helen’s liberty, revealing the source and depth of her artistic conscience amidst a series of deep philosophical debates on a wide range of subjects, from religion to racial oppression. 

As directed by Jerome Davis, this finely tuned drama is not for the faint-hearted, nor does it feel belabored. Lenore Fields delivers an understated but increasingly powerful performance as Miss Helen, an artist ostracized by her community because of her artistic expression, now grappling with the limitations imposed by aging. As Elsa, Abbe Fralix realistically oscillates between peevishness and moral outrage, credibly portraying how Elsa’s own personal crises are stoking her emotions. As Marius, Brian Linden superbly wrestles between his role as pastor and his conflicted feelings for Miss Helen. Linden brings a palatable emotional resonance to the pastor’s dawning realization about Miss Helen, her art, and himself.

A stunning mural by Meredith Riggan provides a view of the Karoo region through the windows of Miss Helen’s home. With its multicolored walls, groups of candles, and dark, vintage furniture, Erin Morales echoes the main character’s creativity with her own design sensibility. Christopher Popowich’s lighting also does a wonderful job of evoking the changing of time, as the day turns to night, over the course of the drama.

This play unfurls gradually and leaves one pondering the fates of all three characters. While Miss Helen seems to find her voice, the reality of her choice seems precarious at best. Elsa has choices to make as well, and the tenuous relationship that existed between Marius and Miss Helen now seems irretrievable. The journey to Mecca can be a fraught one.

The Road to Mecca runs through December 19th. Streaming and in-person viewing options are available. For more information visit https://burningcoal.org/.

For a complete listing of Triangle theater events, visit our Triangle Event Calendar.

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