It takes what feels like endless patience, sometimes, to endure the exposition of an Athol Fugard play, particularly one from his most prolific and notable period, the ‘70s and the ‘80s. And it was upon watching the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current Broadway revival of The Road to Mecca, a play which I had neither seen nor read since its off-Broadway debut in 1988, watching it with the eye of a writing teacher of many years (which I had not been at the time), that I finally understood why.
He’s just not very good at it.
Make no mistake, Fugard’s is a brilliant, sensitive, oft-poetic and important theatrical voice…I'd hate to imagine the world, much less the theatre, without him…but he’s often deficient in the introduction of dramatic tension.Rather, he takes precious, leisurely time positioning his story’s players, but he does so without actually getting the story going. To wit: The Road to Mecca.
The play takes place in 1974, in the small Karoo village of New Bethesda, South Africa. Young Elsa Barlow, a teacher (Carla Gugino), has been driving twelve hours straight to visit 70 year old Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris) a sculptor who has been kind of a surrogate mother to her. Elsa’s cranky at first—it has been a stressful ride—but in short order she finds her equilibrium and reclaims her deep affection for Miss Helen and they spend the better part of 45 minutes talking about themselves and reminiscing. By the time that 45 minutes is up, they will be nothing if not well-rounded characters and we will know them almost as intimately as they know each other.
That is, if our concentration hasn’t waned.
Because, you see, there’s no tension. Just two nice people talking. Sometimes the subject is pleasant, sometimes difficult, but the segues from topic to topic don’t exist within the umbrella of a larger topic that keeps us focused.
And then at about the 45 minute mark, Elsa gets down to business. She wants to know why Miss Helen wrote her a letter asking for help, from what shows every sign of being the depths of a suicidal depression.
Okay, now wait a minute.
All this time, there’s been that letter? And we haven’t heard about it?
I understand totally Fugard’s desire to avoid melodrama, or spill the beans too early; but in a situation like this, you can have your cake and eat it too.
Let’s start with Alfred Hitchcock’s famous definition of the difference between shock and suspense. Two guys are sitting at a table talking about baseball. Suddenly a bomb under the table goes off. That’s shock, and it’s good for a few moments of surprise. Now imagine: Same scene with one alteration: we in the audience know something the two guys don’t: there’s a bomb ticking beneath the table. That’s suspense.
That established, let me show you how easy a fix this might've been. Might still be if Mr. Fugard ever decided to revise (the dialogue here is not presented as authentic sounding Fugard; just bald "stand-in" stuff for function):
Elsa arrives, she’s crabby from the long-hot-sweaty journey, she apologizes, there’s some smiling-laughing-kibbitzing, no more than maybe three minutes' worth, and then Elsa says, “That reminds me. This letter you wrote me…”
And Miss Helen says, airily, casually, “Oh, let’s not talk about that just yet. Let me hear more about you.”
And we go back to the reminiscing. Just as written. Maybe even for many minutes. The difference is: now the audience knows there’s something in the air. They know, without even being told, that that letter triggered Elsa’s unannounced arrival; they also know, without being told, how profound Elsa’s love for the old woman is, because she did drop in unannounced after a non-stop 12-hour car ride on the strength of a letter.
And somewhere along the way, Elsa brings the conversation back to the letter. And this time, just a bit more firmly, Miss Helen says, “Oh, it was a mistake. You can see everything’s fine,” and changes the subject again. And now the stakes have ratcheted up, because in addition to avoidance, there’s denial. After that beat, again, we go back to the play—as written. Now the characters are pointedly talking around an issue. There's an invisible but palpable elephant in the room.
Until the point where Elsa finally refuses to accept the topic being brushed off and makes Miss Helen confront the topic with her. There, one would have to tweak the script just a little bit to avoid repetition: the steps toward confrontation needn’t be acted out anew. Plus, the tweak would cut most of the late exposition. We're already in the grrove, so we can cut right to the sum and substance of the letter.
A text alteration that tiny would assure our alertness, would make the drama hotter, the funny moments funnier and etc. because, even though the game isn’t being given away—the letter is the bomb under the table, because for the longest time, we just don’t know its contents; the reveal is the explosion—we’d be in on enough of the subtext to keep us on the edge of our seats.
As it is, though, the first three-quarters of A Road to Mecca is a leisurely affair. And of course it does perk up when we know what’s in the letter, because with the revelation of the contents comes the revelation of what triggered them. The town pastor, Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), whom Miss Helen has known most of her life, is putting gentle but persistent pressure on her to move out of her little cottage into an even littler room in the nearby Home for the Aged. The pastor shows up at the end of the act; and in the slightly longer Act Two there’s a game afoot, for the pastor is a sly operator, he doesn’t show all his cards right away, and when he does, there are a few in the deck that take us by surprise.
And—in usual Athol Fugard fashion—once the game starts in earnest, you can’t take your concentration off it.
Given that The Road to Mecca starts its excellent game way late, all hands do what they can, under the unobtrusive but solid direction of Gordon Edelstein, to maintain interest via persona. Carla Gugino is, as always, fetching and darkly intelligent; and Rosemary Harris is, as always, a great lady of the stage who knows how to command attention, though here not with grand gesture, but rather stillness, and the restlessness of inner disquiet. And as the pastor, Mr. Dale, always something of a showman, puts his sellin’-it persona to craftier, perhaps more sinister use.
in all, what’s at the American Airlines Theatre is a lovely production of a
lovely play. But for staying on track with those first 45 minutes, I tell
you, one of those liquid energy shots would not go amiss…
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