Sunshine and candle flame, refracted through ground-up beer bottles and bouncing off mirrors, suffuse “The Road to Mecca,” animating an isolated desert home with glinting light.
Light is key in this play about illumination, aging and, above all, the dangerous calling of making art.
The stubborn, lone resident of this home, Miss Helen (played by the incomparable Rosemary Harris) turns the crude materials of broken glass, wire and concrete into unearthly sculptures, her unwanted gift to a town that has shunned her since her husband’s death 15 years earlier.
Outside (and unseen by the audience), camels, owls, wise men and more fantastical creatures have replaced a barren garden, their imposing forms made light in both senses of the word.
Inside, smaller works turn Helen’s modest dwelling in the Karoo desert north of Cape Town into a refulgent sanctum.
“This is my world and I have banished darkness from it,” she says, in this most personal play from Athol Fugard, better known for works (“The Blood Knot,” “Master Harold...and the Boys”) that confronted apartheid with unsparing rue.
Her Brilliant Career
Helen is the first of the three characters we meet in “Mecca,” presented off-Broadway in 1988 and now on Broadway by the Roundabout.
Harris, still luminous at 84 years old, caps a brilliant career with a deeply felt performance. It’s late afternoon and Helen’s friend Elsa (Carla Gugino) has driven 800 miles to visit after receiving an unsettling letter from her.
The instigator of that missive doesn’t appear until the end of a long, expository first act that lays out in rather lumbering exchanges the circumstances that have brought them all to a crossroads.
Marius (Jim Dale), the local minister, is determined to move Helen to a home for the aged. He worries about her mental health and increasing forgetfulness. Like the rest of Helen’s former friends, Marius regards her statues as frightening and blasphemous, the work of an antichrist.
After Elsa exposes Marius’s motives, Helen’s meekness peels away as she explains her apostasy -- her new religion, whose icons face east, where light begins with every sunrise.
Gordon Edelstein has staged “Mecca,” which has slow-going moments, with keen sensitivity to its rhythms.
Dale, too long absent from the stage, is a wonderful Marius, his eyebrows registering every emotional bump on this long evening. He also gets the accent better than his two colleagues, though Gugino is affecting as a young woman challenged by her own disappointments.
Harris floats about Michael Yeargan’s cluttered desert-hued set, a winsome apparition. Like one of Miss Helen’s own creations, though, the lightness of being is crafted of much sterner stuff.
Through March 4 at 227 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Road-to-Mecca.aspx.
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)