There's a scene near the end of Everyman Theatre's production of "The Road to Mecca" in which all of the many candles on the set are lighted, and the walls, which are filled with glass mosaic fragments, glow like a curtain of stars on a clear night.
It's a magnificent image in a production that would sparkle even without candles.
Loosely based on the life of an Afrikaner visionary artist named Helen Martins, this three-person play by South African playwright Athol Fugard is metaphorically as well as literally about light and darkness. The light is self-expression and freedom, in this case, artistic freedom. The darkness is their suppression. (Artistic freedom is a theme particularly pertinent to Fugard, whose opposition to his country's apartheid led the government to put him under surveillance and revoke his passport for four years in the 1960s).
In "The Road to Mecca," which takes place in a small village in the Karoo region, the elderly, widowed Helen is about to be shunted off to a retirement home by the church council. The local minister, Marius Byleveld, insists the council has only her best interests at heart. But her close friend, Elsa, a young, liberal-minded Capetown schoolteacher, sees the council's concern as something quite different.
Elsa is convinced the council is afraid of Helen - afraid of her artistry, afraid of her free spirit and, in the broadest sense, afraid of what they neither know nor care to understand.
As this description suggests, the play involves a great deal of debate, and director Donald Hicken lets that debate unfold at a natural, at times even leisurely, pace. In the first half, that pace allows us to appreciate the depth of friendship between Deborah Hazlett's serious-minded Elsa and Tana Hicken's delicate, eccentric Helen, a woman more than twice the teacher's age. These are women close enough to be cranky in front of each other, and also close enough to behave like giggling schoolgirls.
In keeping with the recurring imagery of light and darkness - so beautifully conveyed by R. Scott Hengen's splendidly detailed set and Jay A. Herzog's ethereal lighting - when Marius arrives at the end of the first act, he's initially seen merely as a dark shadow, looming in the doorway. Though John Dow has the externals of this well-meaning, but severe character down pat, we never truly sense his unrequited love for Helen, which would lend added layers to his character.
And Tana Hicken's Helen, though decidedly quirky, is eminently deserving of love as well as respect. When she stands on a chair with a taper in hand, Hicken is nearly luminous herself as she delivers the second-act speech in which Helen explains how her idiosyncratic house and sculpture garden - her Mecca - came about.
Marius may denigrate Helen's art as a mere hobby and label her sculptures "cement monstrosities," but even he has to admit, "I've never seen you as happy as this! There is more light in you than in all your candles put together." Indeed, Hicken's captivating performance is its own best testament to the transformational power of the arts.
The production isn't perfect. Hazlett's accent tends to sound more British than South African, and while director Donald Hicken is to be applauded for taking his time in terms of pacing, his staging is occasionally too static.
Overall, however, this is an inspirational interpretation of an enchanting work, a play whose message about the importance of a life in the arts makes it a highly appropriate choice to launch Everyman's 10th anniversary season.
'Road to Mecca'
Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles Street
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 1