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The Road to Mecca at Main Stage West, Sebastopol CA

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The Road to Mecca at Main Stage West, Sebastopol CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Journey on an Emotional, Cerebral “Road”

The creative impulse - where it comes from, what triggers it and why - has long been a favorite topic of  discussion. And the “starving artist” struggling for recognition has been featured in gloriously fictional musicals and operas like “American in Paris” and “La Boheme”. The less glamorous but no less compelling stories of real-life artists have also received their share of attention. One of the best of these may be a play called “The Road to Mecca” by South African playwright Athol Furgard. It premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut in 1984, and off-Broadway in 1988 after runs in London and elsewhere. Furgard also directed and performed in the play himself.

The setting: 1974 apartheid South Africa. The story: inspired in part by the life of noted Afrikaaner artist Helen Martins. While not strictly biographical, the play borrows key aspects of her life, which was like that of too many artists: defined by an overwhelming sense of being isolated and misunderstood, and shunned by more conventional neighbors.

Laura Jorgensen, John CravenHelen (Laura Jorgensen) is elderly and lives alone, rejected by her community that’s dominated by the strict, fundamentalist church council. Her own personal “Mecca” is her home and garden, filled to overflowing with her concrete sculptures and artwork, the fulfillment of her quest to brighten the world, one fantastic sculpture and art piece at a time.

Her young friend Elsa (Ilana Niernberger), arrives brusque and irritable after an 800-mile drive. She’s come this long way in response to Helen‘s anguished letter threatening suicide over the feared loss of her house, her eyesight, her hands, her art. Helen’s pastor Marius (John Craven) comes bearing fresh vegetables from his garden, hoping to soften the blow of his real purpose - to convince her she must move to a home for the aged, for her own good. Helen is determined to prove that she is self-reliant, but she is filled with doubt and despair. 

Jorgensen as Helen gives a fearless performance as an artist who battles the darkness in her soul with her art, and faces the threat that this last refuge could be taken from her. Niernberger’s Elsa sizzles like a pressure cooker that occasionally explodes in a shrieking release, full of the passion and frustration of those who care deeply. Craven is superb, artfully revealing Marius’ long-suppressed love for Miss Helen. The cast works really well together in a truly fine ensemble performance.

The jewel-box of a set sparkles with reflected light - the candles and lamps, brightly colored walls, mirrors and mosaics of Helen‘s cozy home. For students of the theatre arts, this particular play, beautifully guided and directed by Beth Craven, is a stellar example of the art of acting. Each actor is free to discover and grow their character. The cast relates in the most natural way with subtle nuance of expression, voice and gesture. For theatre lovers, “Road” shines a bright light on the struggle of people searching: for peace and fulfillment, to make a difference in the lives of others, and the unexplained human desire to create.

Set of Road to Mecca at Main Stage West, Sebastopol

Now through February 21, 2016

8:00 p.m. Thursday (Thursdays are “Pay What You Will”)

8:00 p.m. Friday & Saturday

5:00 p.m. Sunday

Tickets $15 to $25

Where: Main Stage West
104 North Main Street
Sebastopol, CA 95472

(707) 823-0177

www.mainstagewest.com

 Photos courtesy of Main Stage West

Theater Review by greg and Suzanne Angeo