I headed out to Theatre Artists Studio near Paradise Valley Mall Saturday night for a play called “The Road to Mecca.” The Roundabout Theatre Company production of “The Road to Mecca” closed just last month, and cast member Jim Dale has been nominated for a Drama Desk award for best featured actor in a play. Before leaving, I leafed through the RTC play guide — a comprehensive treatment of the play’s themes, setting and such.
“The Road to Mecca” was written by Athol Fugard — a South African playwright, director, actor and novelist known for mixing art and politics — whose productions were “the first in the country to feature actors of different races together on stage.” Fugard received a Special Lifetime Achievement Award at last year’s Tony Awards ceremony.
The RTC play guide notes that “The Road to Mecca was inspired by the true life story of Helen Elizabeth Martins, the youngest of six children, born and raised in the small South African village of Nieu Bethesda in December 1897.” Seems she left the village for a time to teach, but returned to care for elderly parents — staying on even after they’d passed away.
“In her late 40s,” it notes, “with no overall plan and no artistic training, Martin began decorating the interior of her house.” Think walls covered in colorful crushed glass — plus various works featuring owl and sun face motifs. Later she created a yard full of sculptures — all facing east towards Mecca. Martin took her own life in 1976, but her house was restored and preserved thanks to Friends of the Owl House established in 1991.
There’s a touch of Martin’s artistic impulse in the Theatre Artists Studio set designed, decorated and painted by Patti Suarez. A giant moon face painted on the floor. Brightly colored walls sparkling with glitter. Dolores D’Amore Goldsmith provided additional set decoration, and the end result is stunning — especially with shadows created by lighting designer Dale Nakagawa.
The set is strewn with candles, reflecting the play’s themes of darkness and illumination. But other themes abound — love and duty, adventure and habit, faith and religion, playfulness and maturity, creativity and conformity. Also trust, hypocrisy, friendship and freedom. If there’s a shortcoming in the work, it’s the attempt to pack too much into a single serving.
The play’s dialogue is dense, compact — though truly gripping only during the second half of the second act. It’s well acted at Theatre Artists Studio by Judy Lebeau (Miss Helen), Debra Rich (Elsa Barlow) and Don Erickson (Marius Byleveld) — though direction by Judy Rollings seems a tad too safe. Miss Helen feels frenetic rather than passionate, and I’m not sure I got a true picture of her complexity. I’d have enjoyed seeing her in the act of creating which was so essential to her existence and self-identity.
Before the play began, I spent some time enjoying works by studio artists exhibited in the theater lobby. Several mixed media works by Judy Lebeau and seven pieces by Debra Rich Gettleman — all woodburning, color washing and acrylic. Also several Mark Gluckman photographs and works of watercolor and ink by Barb McGuire. Keep them in mind when you’re on the prowl for original art.
Nowadays the studio is working to raise matching funds for a challenge grant and gearing up for a free Mother’s Day event called “Music & Musings for Mothers.” They’re presenting a little something called “Hot” in May and their annual 10-minute play festival, dubbed “New Summer Shorts,” in June. “The Road to Mecca” runs through May 6.
I’ll never make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but my journeys to Theatre Artists Studio feel plenty illuminating. Their work is funny, poignant, relevant and smart. Learn more at www.thestudiophx.org.
Note: Click here to read the RTC play guide, which includes information on Helen Martin, the Owl House and Apartheid in South Africa, as well as pre-show and post-show activities. Click here to explore the Apartheid Museum online.
Coming up: Debra Rich Gettleman talks playwriting, Celebrating Cinco de Mayo with arts and culture
Photos by Mark Gluckman
Update: Peter Kaczorowski is nominated for a 2012 Tony Award for lighting design of a play for “The Road to Mecca” on Broadway — click here for a list of this year’s nominees. 5/1/12