'Mecca' is inspiring production


The themes that life is a "miracle" even the most ordinary person can make happen and that "trust" and "freedom" are the most valuable commodities form the philosophical crux of "The Road to Mecca." Athol Fugard's probing study of two women bTC played out against the background of a near feudal village in South Africa is being presented at the Fells Point Corner Theatre through Oct. 7.

Admirably directed by Denise Ratajczak, this is a first-class production featuring strong performances by veteran local actors Beverly Sokal, Julie-Ann Elliott and Bruce Godfrey.

Excellently choreographed, the three always move with thoughtful motivation. Interaction between the players is tightly paced and -- unlike a number of community theater productions we have witnessed -- they are listening intently to each other in character.

In this finely tuned interpretation we see the important dual emotions of the characters, expressing one sensibility on the surface while inwardly seething with their individual fears.

Fugard, a South African, is noted for his plays, which take a harsh stand against apartheid. Unlike his other works this one has no black actors, but his continuing message attacking the racial inequality and religious hypocrisy is embodied in Elsa, a 34-year-old liberal English schoolteacher.

Defiant and rebellious, she has traveled 800 miles to the desolate Karoo village of New Bethesda to visit her old friend, Miss Helen, a 70-year-old South African artist, a shining free spirit.

Suffused with a secret joyous calling, Miss Helen creates eclectic statuary on the barren earth around her house. All of her bizarre cement figures, including the Three Wise Men, point East toward Mecca, the desired land. Inside, her private world glitters with stained glass, mirrors, artworks and the light of many candles.

Fearing what is different, the ignorant villagers view her as a wicked witch. The local pastor, her well-meaning antagonist, is trying to place her in an old peoples' home.

But darkness of soul felt first in childhood is infecting Miss Helen. Confused she turns to Elsa, who has her own devastating problems as we discover later, but her friend angrily tells her she must make her own decision. This is the challenge, the strength of the play.

Beverly Sokal turns in a lovely, poignant performance as the bemused artist, and gifted Julie-Ann Elliott plays Elsa with the proper hard edge. Bruce Godfrey is fine as the conventional pastor frightened -- and envious -- of what he does not understand.

Set designer Tony Mileto has created a splendid, sparkling, colorful motif for the artist's lair. Wrenching yet inspirational, filled with unexpected humor, this is an enriching experience not to be missed.

The Colonial Players of Annapolis production of Robert Harling's "Steel Magnolias" has been nicely directed by local film producer Steve Yeager. But Yeager must keep his cast rotating at all times as they tend to stay in stagnant positions blocking the view of the audience.

Disappointing in this tale of five devoted woman friends is Dorothy Wardell, who as the town curmudgeon is very weak in the role; and Darice Clewell, who gives a repressed, humorless, surface performance as a dying girl's mother. Martha Manning, Laura Auldridge and Tissie Bowen all do well, but it is the outstanding, absolutely luminous performance of Alexia Rein as the dippy Annelle that makes this version worthwhile.

The Colonial Players will present the production through Oct. 6.

Neil Simon's autobiographical comedy-drama, "Chapter Two," is on stage at the Spotlighters Theatre through Sunday. Too heavily directed by Patsy Black, the play is sluggishly paced.

Rodney Bonds is believable but too low key as a widowed writer smitten with guilt. Janise Marvel plays his new wife. Poor in acting technique, appropriate posture, and wardrobe, Marvel fails to convince.

Jonathan Lowenberg as the writer's brother annoyingly belts out his lines like an amateur stand-up comedian always waiting for the laughs. Only Karen Ferris as a wayward wife captures some of the sophisticated humor of this usually delightful play.

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