Shedding light on struggle of elderly

Play: Colonial Players present "The Road to Mecca," which explores the human psyche against the backdrop of apartheid-era South Africa.

January 27, 2000|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Colonial Players continues celebrating its 51st season by doing what it does best -- staging a thoughtful, provocative and powerful drama that explores the human psyche.

Through Feb. 19, the theater is presenting South African playwright Athol Fugard's 1984 work "The Road to Mecca," set in a central South African village in 1974, when apartheid flourished.

There, in her self-created Mecca, we find eccentric, free-spirited, aging artist Helen Martins and her younger friend, Elsa Barlow, a teacher from Cape Town who has come to bolster Helen's resolve to remain in her home and avoid being moved to a center for the aged.

Fugard's portrayal of the two women's friendship and support of each other is as powerful as any I've seen on any stage. The problems of aging are vividly described with such brutal honesty that this work should be required reading in geriatric and women's studies.

Fugard explores the tension that exists between young and old, between the secular and religious, the constricted lot of white Afrikaners and the denial of freedom to the black population.

Compelling in its honesty, this drama focuses on the inner dichotomy of Helen's self-doubt that dims her bright spirit, her frailty that alternates with strength; Elsa's resolve and vacillation between idealism and streetwise pragmatism.

After an eight-hour journey to Helen's home for an overnight stay, Elsa resolves to protect her friend's welfare. The church people and Pastor Marius Byleveld consider Helen a danger to herself and want her removed from her home and placed in a facility for the aged.

Having stopped creating the sculptures that form her private Mecca, Helen looks to Elsa for a solution. Elsa can offer only "a shopping list" to see a doctor and an optician and find a maid. Disappointed, Helen explains that she needs a way to cope with the darkness in her soul, where she "can't light candles."

Marius tries in his rigid Afrikaner way to persuade Helen to sign the nursing home admission form. To Elsa, Helen remains the "first truly free spirit" she has ever known, while Marius views Helen as dangerous to herself and considers her art a form of idolatry.

In Colonial Players' production, Marius is played by Bob Nelson, who conveys not only the Afrikaner stoicism but a kind of constricted everyman who hesitantly reveals his affection for Helen in pained fragments.

A part of Colonial Players for 49 of its 51 years, Beth Whaley has served twice as president, as editor of its 50th anniversary book and has appeared in many shows. In all of these shows, I doubt that Whaley could have been more radiant than she is as Helen.

When Whaley delivers Helen's words recalling Marius drawing the shades after her husband's funeral, we witness incandescent acting, where Whaley banishes darkness in Helen's world, displaying "more light than in all the candles put together."

Describing how Helen has spent her life lighting candles, Whaley invests an aching poignancy in the realization that she now "must learn to put them out."

Completing the acting trio is Darice Clewell, who meets the challenge of portraying the multifaceted Elsa Barlow in her fierce caring and determination to right all wrongs, in her compassion and in her haunting portrayal of loneliness and misery.

The play, which deals so much with light, is well served by the talents of lighting designer John Purnell and assistant Paul Michalee, who make the walls come alive, glittering in darkness, reminiscent of the caves of Lascaux. The enchanting set was designed by Doug Dawson.

The direction of Joan Fontana is consistently on the mark, evoking the kind of restrained emotion that perhaps could have only been so well realized by a woman.

Information: 410-268-7373.

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