“Road to Mecca” lined with heart-wrenching performances
Renaissance Theaterworks' season closer beautifully tells the story of outsider artist Helen Martins' fears and struggles in 1974 apartheid South Africa.
You know what Milwaukee theater is great at? Just putting a couple actors on stage, and allowing them to talk. No gimmicks, no enormous casts, just gifted storytellers in a dark room.
Add Renaissance Theaterworks’ The Road to Mecca, a tale about an aging outsider artist from South Africa directed by Suzan Fete, to the list of powerful stories brought to you simply by talented, heart-wrenching performances.
But first, let’s address the amazing set. It reminded me of all of my favorite friends’ homes growing up — those homes filled with colored glass and rich paint that felt so warm and inviting. Renaissance created the play’s beautiful Mecca with the help of local visual artist Katie Martin, who led workshops to create hundreds of owl sculptures, and First Stage costume artisan Brandon Kirkham, who built the enormous statues lining the set.
Katie Martin’s owl project was made possible by the Mary L. Nohl Fund, a woman whose life mirrors that of Helen Martins’ in The Road to Mecca. Both woman created gorgeous, quirky pieces as outsider artists, and both were chastised for doing so.
While Mary L. Nohl created her artistic haven here in Milwaukee, Helen Martins story takes place in apartheid South Africa. Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca is set in 1974, as Ms. Helen (Linda Stephens) struggles against the conservative Church Council’s attempts to remove her from her home, fearing she can’t care for herself in her old age.
Ms. Helen’s young friend Elsa (Bri Sudia) enters the night longtime village pastor Marius (Jonathan Gillard Daly) is due to visit the “mecca.” He believes the appropriate course of action is to put Ms. Helen in an old age home. Elsa vehemently disagrees.
But before Marius arrives, the first act of The Road to Mecca is a brilliant back-and-forth between Stephens and Sudia, spanning every conceivable emotion and slowly, deliberately unearthing the women’s fears and struggles.
Elsa, a 28-year-old English teacher, enters Ms. Helen’s home unannounced, storming around with pessimistic unpleasantness. It’s uncharacteristic; Ms. Helen tells Elsa repeatedly throughout the play that she doesn’t recognize her.
It comes to light that Elsa has suffered a heartbreak involving a married man. Sudia’s anguish is real, believable. Though Elsa is brash and ultra-liberal, speaking loudly and almost self-righteously on the rights of women and blacks, I never disliked her. I nodded along, I ached with her, I rooted for her to regain her trust in humanity.
Conversely, Ms. Helen is timid and uncertain in the shadow of Elsa’s roaring opinions. She’s obviously hiding things from her friend — the reason Elsa drove 12 hours for a surprise one-night stay had to do with a frightening and dramatic letter she received from her friend. But she denies any problems, claiming she was merely in a dark place when she wrote it. Stephens brilliantly delivered the quiet torment of an aging artist, fearing her best days and inspirations lie behind her.
Throughout The Road to Mecca, Ms. Helen attempts to describe the darkness inside her, a constant desire for light. Elsa speaks of Ms. Helen’s freedom, that those who judge are only jealous that their lives aren’t glittery and true. Only conversation that brings these women into stark and admirable understanding.
The Road to Mecca is entirely linear, with no flashbacks or elapsed time. Even the beautiful set began to melt away, leaving only outstanding performances that invited important questions about what it means to be fulfilled.