review by Janet I, Martineau
If there is one thing clear and evident with the Saginaw Valley State University production of “The Road to Mecca,” it’s that it is superbly acted.
There may be a few issues with lighting and staging, but wow what a powerhouse with its cast of three in portraying an intimate story about loneliness, friendship, trust, freedom, creativity, judgmental society, racism and old age.
Sadly, two of its three-night run is already sold out in the 100-seat Black Box Theater -- tonight and Thursday are packed; only 7:30 p.m. remains.
Penned by Athol Fugard, a South African born playwright now living in the U.S., “Mecca” is set in 1974 apartheid South Africa in a small village. But its themes are universal, really, and in this case based on a real-life woman.
The three characters are Helen Martins (played by Kiri Brasseur), an aging widow who has made the outside and inside of her home into a massive display of folk art, much to the annoyance of the community; Elsa Barlow (Mykaela Hopps), a 31-year-old feminist teacher who has befriended Helen and makes 10-hour drives to visit her, and Marius Blyeveld (played by Ashton Blue), the town’s minister who is seeking to put Helen into an old folks home for her own good.
What happens in the course of the show is we watch as sweet, confused, non-confrontational Helen becomes a battlefield between Elsa and Marius for their own personal agendas.
“How do you like your tea?” Elsa says to Marius at one point, with all the sarcasm a voice can muster along with a killer look in her eyes.
Elsa and Marius are bullies.....or are they? Turns out there is more to them than first appears as the evening progresses.
And as said, all three actors are spot on. It takes the viewer but a few seconds to connect to each, and then waver back and forth on how they feel about them as they continue to bully Helen and each other AND come to grips with their own issues and loneliness.
Director Tommy Wedge has staged the show “in the round” -- a first at SVSU -- meaning the audience sits on all four sides of the stage. And meaning, given the smallness of the Black Box Theatre, this cast better be good and always in character because they are always just a few feet if not inches away from viewers.
As a “critic,” I have always enjoyed watching not where the action, the dialogue, is taking place at the moment but the other characters who are away from the focus, in the shadows so to speak. In “Mecca” everyone was in-the-moment real, especially Hopps as the prickly and edgy Elsa.
Blue moved beautifully throughout as an aging minister; went from gentle to kinda feisty in a flash. And Brasseur never wavered as a gentle, timid, plyable soul....until the moment she got to speak about her passion, her art.
All three are costumed beautifully as well.
What we had issue with is the inside of Helen’s house really did not reflect her folk art passion -- perhaps not possible because of the “in the round” concept and not being able to block views. There was no sense of the outside art as well. It would have enhanced the experience if each had been addressed -- especially given the fact such folk art passions exist in both Midland and downstate in Detroit.
But more critical is that the script refers to the fact Helen’s house is lit at night only by candles, and those candles are symbolic of the issues the script is raising. There are a few fleeting moments in the show when, indeed, that is the only light (fake candles, so not to worry Mr. Fireman) and it is lovely -- unusual, calming, lovely. We are able to see the faces fine, due to the small theater. And sometimes the actors carry them at face level, which creates an interesting look.
For the most part, however, overhead stage lighting rules -- subdued, yes, but obvious; vitally needed at one point, fine. But the candle use was much more effective and less jarring to the mood.
Other than that, “The Road to Mecca” is a trip well worth taking,