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The High Road 

An inexpensive community production may be the best show currently playing in Berkeley

Wednesday, Feb 7 2001
If you're not satisfied with the Berkeley Rep's current prix fixe, richer fare is available several blocks north, for less money, at the Live Oak Theater on Shattuck. Athol Fugard's Road to Mecca (one of my favorite plays) is getting a respectful treatment by the Actors Ensemble. The Ensemble is a community theater troupe, meaning membership is open "to anyone in the community who is interested in learning about, participating in, or supporting this theater." That sounds dire, but everyone in the cast has professional experience, and Mecca may be an indestructible script.

Fugard wrote the play about a real woman in the desert hamlet of New Bethesda, South Africa, where he owned (and may still own) a weekend house. Miss Helen Martins was the village eccentric. "Her craziness took the form of rather silly statues and sculpture that she made and had all around her house," Fugard told an interviewer. For "fifteen or seventeen years she worked away, with obsessive dedication, at what must have been a personal vision." Then she committed suicide. Fugard was drawn to the story by the queer fact that Miss Helen had led a thoroughly conventional Afrikaner life before erupting into sculpture in her old age. She also made friends with a strong-minded, progressive young woman who in Fugard's mind must have clashed with "the almost feudal world of New Bethesda -- a South Africa [that] disappeared from the rest of the country a hundred years ago."

The inside of Miss Helen's house was obsessively, gaudily decorated, and Debra Blondheim's version of it in Berkeley is this production's first hint of quality. A dingy bedroom and dining area have been tarted up with tapestries, colorful patches of tile, dozens of candles, and a sun pattern rendered on one wall in fragments of mirror and pottery. Looming in the yard are a sheet-metal Easter Island head and a lumpy sculpture of a camel, among other monsters. The townspeople hate Miss Helen's house and yard, but she thinks of it as Mecca.

The play deals with New Bethesda's efforts to exile Miss Helen. Her young friend, Elsa Barlow, drives up from Cape Town for a visit; the same evening a local pastor, Marius, drops by with papers that would commit Helen to an old-age home. Marius represents the will of the town, but he also thinks of Mecca as a personal insult. Miss Helen started building it one Sunday instead of going to church. Her husband had died, and she found that sculpting brought more light and consolation than God. "Do you know what the word "God' looks like when you've lost your faith?" she asks Marius. "It looks like a little stone, a cold, round, little stone."

So Marius and Elsa battle for Miss Helen's soul. Helen herself wavers; she thinks a home for the aged might be appropriate, since her visions have dried up and the flow of artwork has stalled. She's been depressed, even suicidal. Still, in her own defense, Helen musters a stirring speech about darkness and light, accompanied by candle flames dancing in the fragments of glass on her walls. "In the center of Mecca there is a temple, Marius, and in the center of the temple is a vast room with hundreds of mirrors on the walls and hanging lamps, and that is where the Wise Men of the East study the celestial geometry of light and color. I became an apprentice."

The play is heartbreaking. Gabrielle Fisher, Madelene Conroy, and Bradford Guthrie give it a flawed but earnest performance. Fisher, as Elsa, is plucky and peevish -- sometimes too peevish, but good at the heated speeches about racism and Afrikaner provincialism. Guthrie plays Marius in a bold, strong, cadenced voice, now and then overdoing the pastor's bluster but mostly in command. Conroy forgot a few lines on opening night, playing Miss Helen, but in her soliloquies she warms to the role and becomes girlish, vulnerable, desperate, but durable. The production approaches Fugard's great script the way Miss Helen approaches her vision of Mecca: imperfectly, with an awkward mixture of concrete and glass. But that's enough. Mecca may be the best show in Berkeley right now.


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