American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through March 4, $67-$117
The Broadway premiere of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s 1988 drama, The Road to Mecca, is a bumpy one, but it’s a trip well worth taking. Running at the American Airlines Theatre through March 4, the two-and-a-half-hour Roundabout production is set in 1974 in the Karoo region of South Africa, where Elsa Barlow (Carla Gugino) has suddenly shown up to spend the night visiting her much older friend, Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris). Elsa, an English South African teacher who has just broken up with her lover, is shocked to discover that Miss Helen, an Afrikaner widow who became a sculptor after the death of her husband fifteen years earlier, is considering giving up her unique house, filled with her many unusual creations, and move into an old-age home at the request of the village, primarily the leader of her church, Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale). The first act drags as the two women get reacquainted and slowly share details of their lives with each other, but it instantly takes off with the arrival of the minister, who electrifies the second act as the three debate such issues as freedom, faith, and friendship. Harris and Gugino, who had trouble with the pacing of several lines in the first act, are much better in the second, as each of the three performers delivers long, powerful speeches. Dale is magnificent as Byleveld, whether praising the local vegetables, a word he carefully pronounces in four elegant syllables, or defending the village’s old-fashioned ways. When he departs, the play comes to a grinding halt in its final scene, which includes several out-of-place clichés that director Gordon Edelstein (A Skull in Connemara) should have cut. The Road to Mecca, which made its American debut at the Promenade in 1988 with Fugard directing and playing Byleveld and being named Best Foreign Play by the Drama Critics’ Circle, is being staged in conjunction with the Signature Theatre Company’s Athol Fugard Series, a year-long residency that will include Fugard’s Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, and The Train Driver in the company’s new home on West 42nd St. (Note: All Tuesday-night perfomances of The Road to Mecca will be preceded by a discussion with a Roundabout teaching artist at 7:30.)