Freedom’s Light Shines on The Road to Mecca
Candlelight immerses the audience in Renaissance Theaterwork’s latest production, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca to close their 20th season. The mesmerizing theater lighting coordinated by Rick Graham illuminates one of the most imaginative sets recently seen on Milwaukee’s intimate stages, courtesy of Scenic Designer Lisa Schlenker. A design that deftly recreates the rural South African home of outsider artist Helen Martins, who created fascinating cement sculptures on her land and mirrored interiors.
The set imagines how Helen Martins, or Miss Helen as she became known, “made magic with glitter and light…a miracle that anyone can make.” She lit her “candles for courage” that continued to give Miss Helen the freedom to make her art. To be unconventional in an oppressive political and religious community so she might live her life into her 70’s even though arthritis and poor eyesight hindered Martin’s later years.
In Fugard’s story set in the 1970’s, Martins lives in the Karoo, a desert region of South Africa when the country is entrenched in their apartheid policy, where certain ethnicities are suffering racial inequality. Feeling the end of her creativity and personal freedom may be near, Martins calls upon her trusted friend Elsa, a young schoolteacher in her 20's. Elsa travels 800 miles from Cape Town for one night only to reconnect with Miss Helen after suffering her own personal indignities and losses, while Martins faces this critical time in her own life.
Enter the pastor of the local church Marius, who tells Elsa that Helen recently turned over one of her precious candles that chases away the darkness and started her house on fire. Also speaking as a concerned friend, Marius hopes to convince Helen to give this all up, her art, her home, her freedom, her Mecca. And so Fugard’s story poetically speaks to keeping the light burning, burning, burning despite aging, misunderstandings and inequality so creativity, friendship and justice will survive.
The candles in Fugard’s deeply poignant play represent what that flaming light, individually and collectively, reflects. How the collective arts light up culture, how the creative process lights up individuals, how friendship lights up life, how the freedom to be treated as human is as necessary to society as light is to seeing the way in darkness. The metaphors of the performance's candlelight could be endless.
Director Suzan Fete magnificently directs veteran Linda Stephens as Miss Helen and the impressive newcomer, the Milwaukee Rep intern Bri Sudia playing the brash and sincere Elsa. In the play, Fete and Fugard perfectly capture the dance of women’s friendships, where people unintentionally hurt each other by the words they sometimes say and then console each other afterwards, ready to trust again. Where the age difference is inconsequential and beautifully portrayed. This dance between Martins and Elsa, Stephens and Sudia, gives the play a constant rhythm. How well Fete would know after forging close friendships through 20 years collaborating with the women at RTW.
Jonathan Gillard Daly gives Marius a righteous concern, and the audience believes he is doing what he thinks best. Daly’s long acting connection to Stephens, in several affectionate scenes, works equally well so that this marvelous threesome also lights up the entire performance.
True freedom brilliantly illuminates a moment, an individual, an entire life, a country, however long and difficult that road to freedom might be. Martins struggled to be the artist she was, in a town that misunderstood her candles and mirrors, her magic art. She inspired Elsa in her passion to fight against apartheid and to be the unique person she was. Creativity, friendship, individualism and passion could not be snuffed out and South Africa also eventually ended apartheid. Fugard’s moving Mecca glows in these timely themes, and marvelously produced by Renaissance Theaterworks, reiterates what Marius tells Miss Helen as the end of the play, “There is more light in you than all your candles put together.”
Renaissance Theaterworks presents Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through April 28. Community art representing Helen Martin’s marvelous owls with Milwaukee artist katie martin were made so patrons could choose one to take with them after the performance to celebrate creativity and freedom. Support the company by attending their 20th Anniversary Salon Soiree on May 23. For information or tickets, please call 414.291.7800.