Creating “The Road to Mecca”
Director Gordon Edelstein discover new facets of Athol Fugard’s play
Reading scripts can be incredibly rewarding, but it’s like smelling your food instead of tasting it. For all that you learn from the page, you can’t fully comprehend a play until you see it on stage, in the place it was intended to live.
And if you’re a director, even seeing a play can only take you so far. It’s not until you’ve directed it yourself, seen its parts moving from the inside, that you really grasp what it’s doing.
Gordon Edelstein, for instance, saw Athol Fugard’s drama The Road to Mecca when it premiered in the 80s, but now that he’s directing the Roundabout’s current Broadway revival, he’s learning new things.
It helps that he’s older now. Fugard’s play follows Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), an Afrikaner in the small South African village of New Bethesda. She’s alienated herself from almost everyone by leaving her church and throwing her spirit into her art—a garden of sculptures that all point toward Mecca. As she approaches the end of her life, her local preacher (Jim Dale) and her friend Elsa (Carla Gugino), an English South African with a fiery political spirit, both try to guide her toward a good end. But after listening and fretting and facing some serious darkness, Miss Helen responds with a glorious speech about what her art has given her and what it will continue to do for her life.
It’s a breathtaking moment, and it means more to Edelstein now than it did when he saw the play three decades ago. “I was a younger man at the time, and the idea of an artist approaching the end of their creative life was an abstraction for me,” he says. “Whereas now, I’m certainly not the age of Helen, nor, God willing, am I approaching the end of my creative life. But I certainly understand those fears more profoundly.”
That new sensitivity helps Edelstein “listen closely” the text, as does his close friendship with Fugard himself. “I have a much deeper relationship to his work that I did at that time,” he says, noting that he sees elements of the playwright in Miss Helen.
There are some things he couldn’t learn until he was in the rehearsal room. Harris and Gugino, for instance, have taught him about their characters. “They bring their great warmth and deep sweetness to the rehearsal hall and the stage, and that clarifies the deep warmth of relationship between Elsa and Helen,” he says. “It doesn’t surprise me, but it’s striking to see in the flesh.”
He’s been careful not to let things get too cozy. He explains, “When the curtain rises, something is somewhat afoul in that relationship, because both women are holding secrets from each other. So there needs to be some warmth, but also some tension between the two. And that’s part of the challenge in Act I, to dramatize the depth of their closeness as well as the ways they’ve been deceiving each other.”
Audiences should look for the early moment when Elsa and Helen banter about how much they love each other. At one point, Elsa playfully supplicates herself at Helen’s feet, but even though everyone’s joking, the actors give the moment an edge. You can feel the characters straining too hard to be happy, which suggests what’s coming later.
In another interesting choice, Edelstein, who is also the artistic director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, chooses not to let us see Helen’s statues. Instead, they’re in a front yard that’s just beyond the edge of the stage. “There are productions that put the statues on stage,” he says, “but it seems to me that your imagination is far more vivid than I anything I can put there. And because we talk about them so much, it’s so much more fun not to see them. It creates an interesting tension.”
That’s the kind of tension that a director discovers within a play, then passes to the audience, who feels something palpable that they might not have grasped from simply reading a script.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor