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THEATER REVIEW / 'THE ROAD TO MECCA' : Artist Breaks With Society : Ensemble Theatre Company offers a powerful production about an Afrikaner widow's heroic struggle.

April 15, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It happens without warning, in the most unlikely places. A sudden creative eruption from someone late in life who previously showed no interest or talent in the arts.

It is almost as though something immensely potent, unsuspected, and absolutely necessary had chosen the most improbable vessel to manifest itself.

The Watts Towers or, closer to home, the Bottle Village in Simi Valley--these legacies of spontaneous impulse startle us with their untrained genius. So we label them folk art and feel more comfortable.

But their mystery remains.

Exploring the effect of such a transformation on the artist's life is the psychological itinerary in Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca," and the Ensemble Theatre Company's production travels it well.

Along the way, we encounter Fugard's signature theme of a heroic struggle against the pressure to conform exerted by the repressive South African society in which he was raised.

Based on a true story, the play concerns Miss Helen (Sylvia Short), a 67-year-old Afrikaner widow who has scandalized her close-knit, deeply religious community in the Karoo Desert with her disturbing, fantastical sculptures and her flamboyantly eccentric house (admirably rendered in Robert L. Smith's set design).

Miss Helen's art came as much of a surprise to her as anybody--until her husband's death when she was 50, she had been a devout churchgoer with no hint of any passion for self-expression. Yet now she's filled her garden with her "monstrosities," in the words of the town pastor, Marius Byleveld (Robert Munns).

Under the pretense of making her life easier, Marius tries to persuade Miss Helen to move into an old-age home. But her visiting friend Elsa (Delta Rae Giordano), a Cape Town schoolteacher of British descent, points out that he's really trying to remove her from the dangerous pagan idolatry that threatens the harmony of his parish.

As Miss Helen teeters on the brink of indecision, with the two combatants seemingly perched like angel and devil, it's clear her soul is at stake.

But Fugard is much too keen a recorder of human complexity to keep things that simple. What's been shaping up as a clear-cut dialectic takes some unexpected turns as more details about Miss Helen's circumstances come to light, while Elsa's strident accusations are shown in the context of her own personal bias and Marius reveals a surprising dimension of concern for Helen's well-being.

As Miss Helen, Sylvia Short turns in a textbook performance of nuance and precision--emotionally accurate, sometimes painful, sometimes inspiring, and always centered in the character's life and times. Her South African accent rolls along with the effortless cadences of natural speech.

The other performances are less complete--Munns hits all the right emotional notes but his accent is obviously a stretch. Giordano's deliberate focus on accuracy sometimes comes at the expense of feeling, until the powerful closing scene.

Director Robert G. Weiss keeps ratcheting up the intensity at the appropriate times--the production is well-matched to Fugard's rhythm. With its tough-minded but ultimately uplifting portrayal of an indomitable, creative spirit, "The Road to Mecca" is a welcome affirmation for both men and women that the second half of life offers more than decline.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Road To Mecca." Performed through May 23 at the Alhecama Theatre at 914 Santa Barbara St. in Santa Barbara, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12-16. For reservations or further information call 962-8606.

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