Liberating Mecca


Two Women Embark on Bumpy Road in Fugard’s Complex Drama

With only three characters working through their emotions and struggles over the course of a single night, “The Road to Mecca” seems like a simple drama. South African playwright Athol Fugard’s real life-inspired production, though, is anything but.

The story — now on stage at the Studio Theatre — centers on two women, one in her 30s and the other 40 years her senior, who forge an unlikely and enviable bond that becomes ever more complex during nearly two and a half hours of back-and-forth dialogue.

Through their interactions, Fugard is able to explore themes of life and death, freedom and trust, all in the racially charged context of 1970s-era South Africa.

Elsa Barlow (played by veteran local actress Holly Twyford), a young teacher in a mixed-race Cape Town school, comes to visit Helen Martins (Tana Hicken) in the wake of a desperate letter that her older friend has mailed her.

From the second she tears through Miss Helen’s front door, Elsa establishes herself as the star of the show, a fiery female who speaks her mind and has significantly more progressive ideas about society than many of her contemporaries.

Helen, in stark contrast, has lived all of her life in a religious Afrikaner village that largely supports the segregation Elsa cries out against. Ever since her husband died a decade and a half earlier, Helen has been a veritable recluse, immersed in her “Mecca,” an elaborate collection of sculptures she’s crafted throughout her home and yard that also casts her out of her community.

“If my Mecca is finished, then so is my life,” Helen declares, emphasizing its importance to her.

But Helen’s Mecca is threatened by her Christian neighbors, who view her artwork as “idolatry,” and my only wish is that the audience could have experienced more of Helen’s over-the-top artistic haven that caused such a stir. Instead, we get a mere glimpse of her beloved sculptures of wise men, camels and owls (all facing east toward the Muslim pilgrimage site of Mecca).

More successful is set designer Debra Booth’s poignant use of candles to continually illustrate an important theme of contrasting dark and light. Helen’s small town expects her to simply shut her blinds and the light from her home when her husband — and artistic muse — passes, but she uses these candles to stay very much alive.

Symbolizing Helen’s conformist community and rounding out the cast is the local pastor, Marius Byleveld (Washington newcomer Martin Rayner), a lifelong friend of Helen’s who frequently comes to check in on his neighbor, much to the displeasure of Elsa. But on this fateful night Marius comes to convince Helen to sign her life away to a church-run home for the elderly after the townsfolk decide she can no longer care for herself. For that reason, Marius is portrayed as the antagonist of the play until his long-awaited — and Christ-like — arrival. Thankfully, Fugard’s writing adds layers of love and compassion to Marius, making his motives for sending Helen away clearer over time.

Prior to the second half of the play, which features the pivotal confrontation with Rayner, the tone is balanced between humor and seriousness, which helps brace the audience for the more sober conversations ahead about loss, love, guilt and spirituality — as all three characters get to the heart of their underlying demons.

But whether sadness or joy, the element that stands out is the dynamic between the two women, whose verbal interplay becomes a quest in understanding how and when their life stories intersected. Early on, Elsa and Helen delight in the fact that they are like two young girls who enjoy playing with each other, which is clear — yet they also challenge each other and appreciate one another beyond simple playmates.

While everyone else in town views Helen as an eccentric widow who has turned her back on the church, Elsa sees a soul mate who is freer than anyone she’s ever met. Her convincing speech on the matter is one of the more moving moments of the play.

Overall, director Joy Zinoman creates a raw experience that reveals the emotions of three very different, complex and flawed human beings. “Road to Mecca” is not, however, designed to catch the audience off guard. Foreshadowing is practically the fourth character in the room. Yet being able to guess the next revelation does not diminish the power of this emotionally charged tale.

Fugard first premiered “The Road to Mecca” in 1984. Since then the work has been translated on stages all over the nation, with actress Kathy Bates starring as Helen in the onscreen version in 1992. The production at the Studio Theatre stands up to any of these renditions, a reflection of both the local theater’s ongoing innovation and the durability of Fugard’s rich psychological masterpiece.

The Road to Mecca through Oct. 19 Studio Theatre 1501 14th St., NW Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 332-3300 or visit

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.