'The Road to Mecca' illuminates the life of South African recluse Helen Martins

January 27, 1995|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Contributing Writer

The Rep Stage Company -- midway through a season that includes works from Senegal and Ireland -- starts a three-weekend performance tonight of South African playwright Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca" at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback.

The two-act play, first performed in 1984, is a dramatic interpretation of the life of South African recluse Helen Martins, who made environmental art works inside and around her house during her later years -- much to the consternation of her New Bethesda neighbors.

She committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 75.

Her house, "The Owl House," remains open to visitors.

"This is a play about artistic freedom and personal freedom -- particularly if you're someone marching to a different drummer in a very confining society," said the play's director, Kasi Campbell, company manager for the Rep Stage Company and general manager of the performing arts division at HCC.

"The Road to Mecca" is set in a small village in the Great Karoo, a South African desert region. The time is the autumn of 1974.

The play begins with the arrival of Elsa Barlow, a 31-year-old Cape Town school teacher, who comes to her friend's house after receiving a cryptic suicide letter. She finds Miss Helen with failing eyesight, burns on her fingers and evidence she has neglected herself.

Both women have problems with society. Miss Helen is being pressured by the Calvinist minister, Marius Byleveld, to leave her art and her house and enter a retirement home run by his church.

Elsa is slated to appear before the Board of Enquiry of the Cape Town School Board for asking her black students to write to the state president about racial inequality.

The first act ends with the arrival of the minister, who repels Elsa. The younger woman doesn't want Miss Helen to enter the retirement home. The second act begins the struggle among the three for the direction of Miss Helen's soul. The question for the audience is whether she should go to the home.

Mr. Fugard, who has written "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" and "The Island," was born 15 miles from New Bethesda and moved there two years before Ms. Martins' death. In early productions of "Mecca," he played the middle-aged Marius.

The three-member cast is led by Vivienne Shub, who plays the frail but feisty Miss Helen. She has portrayed Hallie in "Buried Child" and Ruth in "Marvin's Room." Marius is played by Peter Gil, who was Peter in "Six Degrees of Separation." Both are members of Actors Equity.

Julie Lentz will be making her company debut as Elsa. She recently completed her master's degree at Purdue University.

All three have received instruction from Michael J. Barnes, a vocal coach, who taught them the finer points of accents for an Afrikaner and a Cape Town resident. Mr. Barnes will also be used later this season for "Dancing at Lughnasa," a play set in Ireland.

To produce "Mecca," the company has taken the Theatre Outback, whose stage juts out into the audience and altered it to make it more like a conventional proscenium stage. The change has reduced the usual 150 seats by 40.

One stunning aspect of the production is the set, a combination of glittering yellow walls, lighted candles and frontier furniture that makes it a fine complement to the actors.

Ms. Campbell said the goal of the set is to "build a cocoon away from the world."

The Rep Stage Company will perform Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca" today, tomorrow and Sunday, and Feb. 3-5 and Feb. 10-12 at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12 and $10 for Sunday matinees. This Sunday's performance will be signed for the deaf. Information: 964-4900.

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