Flicker Shock: Helen doesn?t always like what Elsie helps her see.

Miss Helen’s eyes may not see as well as they once did, but they still flicker with independence in The Road to Mecca. You see it reflected in the brandy goblets she’s hung from the ceiling and the shards of glass and mirror that stud an odd cement sculpture in her parlor, one of many she’s crafted for her sculpture-garden “Mecca,” a peculiar assortment of wise men, camels, and owls. It’s a sparkling vision, opalescent and colorful, that has had her neighbors clucking disapprovingly for 15 years. But Helen (Tana Hicken) is aware that the inspiration that fired it is faltering. “Darkness,” she complains to Elsie (Holly Twyford), a friend who’s driven 800 miles across the South African veldt to be with her this evening. “It’s got inside me at last, and I can’t light candles there.” The local pastor (Martin Rayner), who’s not fond of either the artist’s independence or her sculptures, is offering—nay, more like imposing—a solution: to hie her off to the church retirement home where she can live out her days in quiet conformity. He’ll be along later this evening with papers for her to sign, so Helen is relieved at her friend’s arrival. Surely, Elsie can help her come up with an alternative. And that would seem the likeliest narrative arc if Elsie hadn’t muttered “coming here is like stepping into a Chekhov play” shortly after entering. As you watch Helen stare into the void while the others talk about, around, and at her, you’ll shudder at the nuances that the reference suggests. Yes, the cleric’s approach is heavy-handed, but so is Elsie’s, as she bullies Helen into asserting herself in ways this frail, brilliant creature may no longer be able to manage. Nineteen years ago when D.C. was first dazzled by Road to Mecca’s flickering candles and shimmering poetic imagery, the author, Athol Fugard, was on hand both as director and cast member, and the play, set in an apartheid-era South Africa still bent on enforcing conformity, had a distinctly political feel to it. Today, in Joy Zinoman’s glowing, evocative Studio Theater mounting, the play feels rooted in the personal to me. This may be because the dimming of the light in my father’s eyes had my family mulling many of these same questions recently. Or it may simply be because the author’s generosity of spirit feels not just refreshing but necessary in a world grown short on humanity. Whatever, the darkness may be descending for Miss Helen, but Fugard’s vision still dazzles.

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