"What in God's name am I looking at? Camels and pyramids? Not three, but dozens of Wise Men? Owls with old motorcar headlights for eyes? Peacocks with more color and glitter than the real birds?"
This is the way the character of Elsa, a young teacher, describes her first impression of real-life Afrikaner artist Helen Martins' eccentric home and yard, her "Mecca," in Athol Fugard's 1984 play, "The Road to Mecca."
"She's mad. No question about it," Elsa continues. But "The Road to Mecca" isn't about a mad artist. Set in the desolate Karoo region in Fugard's native South Africa, this is a play about artistic vision, artistic freedom and, more broadly, a free spirit in a repressive country.
Olney Theatre Center's production -- with the magic of Miss Helen's personal landscape beautifully re-created by South African set designer Robin Stapley -- has some genuinely transcendent moments, particularly in the second act, but Adele Cabot's direction frequently allows Fugard's wordy script to drag.
The play takes place on the night two of Miss Helen's only friends show up at her door. Elsa, who teaches in Cape Town, has made the 800-mile drive after receiving a letter in which the aging Helen sounded desperately depressed. Though Hope Lambert's Elsa arrives in a cranky mood, that mood soon lifts, and before she can raise the subject of the letter, she and Helen-Jean Arthur's gentle, cheery Helen laugh and cavort like little girls at play, as they correctly describe themselves. Mostly, however, they just talk, and in much of that talk, the attitude of Lambert's Elsa toward Helen seems more petulant than warm.
The second visitor doesn't appear until the end of the first act. He is Marius Byleveld, Helen's minister, a man Elsa innately distrusts. In this instance, her distrust appears to have some justification, since Marius is determined to get Helen to sign an application for the local old age home.
Max Jacobs portrays Marius as a born preacher, from his shock of white hair to the way he turns everything he says -- even a speech about potatoes -- into a sermon. But something else happens as he and Elsa launch into what appears to be a battle for Helen's soul. As Elsa asserts, the minister and his well-meaning flock are trying to shunt Helen away in part because she frightens them. But Marius also admires Helen, even loves her -- though he would never admit it. Jacobs allows that love and admiration to surface, subtly but undeniably.
Arthur's sparkling delivery of Helen's eleventh-hour affirmation of her life and work not only makes Marius' love understandable, it makes the audience love and admire her, too. Helen's soul is her own; it is not up for bid.
Untrained as an artist and living in semi-isolation, Martins, who committed suicide in 1976, is now classified as a practitioner of visionary, or outsider, art. She used the unconventional, commonplace materials of concrete and broken glass as the basis for her sculptures. Such artists are familiar to Baltimoreans thanks to our own American Visionary Art Museum.
When Arthur expresses Helen's philosophy of banishing darkness from the world, it is almost as if her vision brings the sculptures on Stapley's set to life. In that moment, nearly all of the production's previous sluggishness can be forgiven. And the artist's moving declaration turns a long evening into one that is ultimately uplifting.
'The Road to Mecca'
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. today, Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Sept. 26
Pub Date: 9/03/99