Fugard explores love, trust, friendship. South African playwright wrote, and acts in, his most eloquent drama yet

The Road to Mecca Play by Athol Fugard. Directed by the author. Starring Yvonne Bryceland, Mr. Fugard, Amy Irving. ``The Road to Mecca'' glows with a rare luminosity and intensity. Athol Fugard's latest play to reach New York is also his most eloquent and transforming. It achieves an inner serenity to match the radiance of the numerous lighted candles that illuminate the second-act climax. In the magic glow of that scene, Yvonne Bryceland crowns an unforgettable performance.

Miss Bryceland, a leading South African actress and longtime Fugard collaborator, makes her New York debut in the role of Miss Helen, an eccentric resident of New Bethesda in the dusty Karoo area of South Africa. As the play opens, she is bustling about her small house, trying to tidy it up in preparation for a visit from her young friend Elsa Barlow (Amy Irving). A liberal-minded teacher at a Capetown Colored school, Elsa has made the hot, 12-hour drive in response to an urgent letter from the elderly widow.

The cause of Helen's alarm is a plan, pressed by Pastor Marius Byleveld (Mr. Fugard) to move her to the local Sunshine Home for the Aged. The bewildered and slightly infirm Helen would prefer to remain in the little house outside of which she has created the ``Mecca'' of the title - a fantastic sculpture garden. The strange collection mingles Wise Men with owls, peacocks, camels, pyramids, a Buddha, and an Easter Island figure. Everything points east. Village children once threw stones at the sculptures. Nowadays, Helen is left alone, save for the services of a part-time maid and the visits of Parson Byleveld.

Mr. Fugard balances Helen's crisis against the quite different plight of Elsa, who comes to New Bethesda in the wake of an unhappily ended love affair with a married man. The younger woman is also in trouble at school for having assigned her students to write a letter on racial equality to the state president. In a night of confrontation and confession, ``The Road to Mecca'' probes the deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual drives of each character as each makes unexpected discoveries.

Revelations unfold, and arguments are pursued with a scrupulous fairness to all concerned. In the course of the lengthy dialogues, ``The Road to Mecca'' becomes a play about love and trust, the plight of the odd man (or woman) out, the nature of friendship. Fugard also deals with dogmatic certainty vs. the inquiring spirit, as well as the roots of fear and jealousy. Elsa tells Helen at one point that her neighbors have been afraid and jealous of ``your beautiful light-filled glittering....'' Ultimately ``The Road to Mecca'' is a play about light and darkness.

Miss Bryceland's dowdy, birdlike Helen progresses from the timidity and bewilderment of the early scenes to the elated description of her vision and finally her realization that her road to Mecca has ended, but not in surrender. The actress encompasses the direct yet complex motivations of a woman whom Elsa describes as ``history's first reactionary revolutionary.'' As usual, dramatist Fugard proves that he can be playful as well as deeply serious.

Miss Irving's Elsa swings in mood from desperation to defiance, from exasperation to contrition, as she reacts both to Helen's plight and to her own depression. She also learns that there is something more than doctrinaire paternalism to Byleveld's concern for Helen's welfare. As actor and writer, Fugard gives his due to the parson as a man whose clerical role is not divorced from a genuine love and desire to help.

The production at the Promenade Theatre serves the play beautifully. John Lee Beatty has designed an interior of mirrored walls and geometric designs, affording a glimpse of ``Mecca'' through a rear window. With all those candles, Dennis Parichy's lighting is a miracle of subtly changing luminescence. Susan Hilferty created the costumes for this admirable theater achievement - a fictional celebration of Helen Niemand, the posthumously recognized South African artist whose life inspired ``The Road to Mecca.''

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