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Ray Favero, left, Helen Martins and Charlene Sher go over a scene from The Road to Mecca.
Photo by GINGER MIKKELSEN

Thursday, March 20, 2003
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Theater: Paradise lost...and found

The Road to Mecca's fine production overcomes script problems

By Erin Auerbach

It's always wonderful when a play takes you to a place you've never been and introduces you to real people who, in their own small ways, make significant contributions to the world. The Road to Mecca tells the story of Helen Martins' remarkable artwork in the midst of an ignorant and remote South African Karoo village in the 1970s. Nevada Shakespeare Company brings this vibrant character to life under Zakes Mokae's thoughtful direction. In fact, the outstanding performance just about overcomes some major flaws in the over-indulgent playwriting, creating a satisfying evening of theater.

Athol Fugard's play is full of expository fluff and infiltrated with "artistic license" that detracts from the fascinating chronicle of Helen Martins' work and her extraordinary friendship. In his notes, Fugard acknowledges that the Elsa Barlow character is a work of fiction, based on a real woman who befriended the eccentric recluse in New Bethesda, a tiny mountain village about 420 miles from Johannesburg and 800 miles from Cape Town. Despite Fugard's overripe language and extraneous subplots, this play tells a lovely story about a woman who truly came alive in her later years and how she defied the perils of South African standards a generation ago.

A big part of the production's success is due to Charlene Sher's remarkable performance as Miss Helen. She plays the character with a powerful blend of compassion and command. She is subtle and doesn't need to make grandiose faces or gestures to prove her character's eccentricity. Sher's respect for Helen is apparent throughout the play and she is part of a rare and treasured group of actors who actually listen when other characters speak. There is a constant interior monologue and a wonderful internal struggle as she works to stand up for herself against her friend's overbearing strength and the manipulative pastor who wants her to give up her house and go to an old-age home. When she talks about her sculptures in the yard--the source of the village's chagrin--she's as luminous as the candles she keeps lit around her home.

Jeanmarie Simpson gives a fierce performance, too. As Elsa Barlow, Helen's friend and confidant who drove 12 hours on dirt roads out of concern for her friend, her strength is apparent throughout. Simpson is also good at listening and she plays Elsa in a manner that's quite realistic. She's at once nurturing and domineering without sinking into melodrama and that's not easy to do, especially since hers is the most overwritten character in the play.

There's a chaotic sense of two women at major crossroads in their lives, which director Zakes Mokae weaves together beautifully. Their impatience and excitement around each other when Elsa first arrives feels natural and brings out the potential in Fugard's writing.

Although the play is primarily about the women, the village pastor, Marius Byleveld (Ray Favero), plays a small role, providing Helen with a proper catalyst to stand up for herself and explain what her unusual sculptures and artwork mean. Favero brings an appropriate amount of concern to his part and even manages to evoke a few unexpected chuckles from his deadpan delivery.

The best place to end the play would have been shortly after a defeated Marius skulks away from Helen's home, rebuked in his quest to do what he believes is best for her. Elsa's brief and profound revelation about the nature of Helen and Marius' acquaintanceship would've been the perfect place to end the show. Instead, Fugard feels the need to add more to Elsa's story, tell the audience why she's so disturbed about the young, destitute black woman she gave a ride to earlier in the day. That need adds an unnecessary dimension to a rich character and story, putting a damper on the play.

Luckily, the fluid direction saves the play and makes you look at all that is beautiful about life, even in the midst of all that's perilous in the world around us. More importantly, you leave wanting to learn more about Helen Martins, the sculptures she made, and why creativity can often invoke fear and scorn rather than praise and enlightenment.

The Road to Mecca is presented in conjunction with Nevada Conservatory Theatre and plays in the Black Box Theatre at UNLV Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and info, call 895-2787.


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