Miss Helen’s eyes don’t see as well as they once did, but they still burn with an artist’s independent vision in Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca. Miss Helen is based on Helen Martins, an Afrikaner artist who, before committing suicide in 1976, turned her barren yard into a vast cement and ground-glass sculpture garden filled with owls, mermaids, camels, and wise men.

She was, by most accounts, a difficult woman, but perhaps one has to be difficult to produce unconventional art in a spot as bleak and harsh as New Bethesda. The residents of that South African village regarded Martin as a kook and began to appreciate the 500 peculiar sculptures she crammed up against each other only when they became a tourist attraction in the early ’80s.

In Mecca—which the Olney Theatre is bringing back precisely a decade after its Eisenhower Theater premiere (the first of three shows of that era to be revived this month, the others being Signature’s Sweeney Todd and Woolly Mammoth’s Dead Monkey)—Fugard imagines a crisis that arises partly from the town’s antipathy toward Miss Helen’s “monstrosities” and partly from her growing frailty. Failing eyesight isn’t the only problem the artist faces, as actor Helen-Jean Arthur makes clear from her first entrance. Her fingers are arthritic enough that the lighting of candles and the pouring of tea are becoming difficult. On top of which, the glow that has always illuminated her art seems to be fading.

“Darkness!” she cries to Elsa (Hope Lambert), a much younger friend who has traveled some 800 miles to buck up her spirits. “It’s got inside me at last, and I can’t light candles there.”

Pastor Marius Byleveld (Max Jacobs), who has never much liked Miss Helen’s independence and who positively loathes her sculpture, is prepared to offer—or, rather, to impose—a solution: He wants her to move to his church’s retirement home, where she’ll live out her days in quiet conformity. He’s coming later this evening to collect some papers that still need signing—which is why Miss Helen is so relieved at her friend’s arrival. Surely Elsa can help her come up with an alternative.

And, after dispensing with gossip, Elsa does indeed take charge, urging her friend to fight both the darkness and the pastor, mostly by seeing a doctor about her vision and arthritis, and finding a cleaning woman who’ll make the place presentable so there’ll be no justification for forcing her to move involuntarily. Elsa regards helping Miss Helen as a payback of sorts, because the older woman inspired her own sense of independence. Battle lines, therefore, are clearly drawn when the pastor shows up at the end of Act 1 and locks eyes with his unexpected opponent. You can pretty much see where all this is headed.

What makes the second act invigorating is that Fugard doesn’t actually go where it seems clear this material is going to take him. Yes, the cleric is smug and heavy-handed (Jacobs makes his slips into sermonizing seem as natural as breathing), but his motives prove anything but scurrilous. In fact, as Elsa keeps pushing Miss Helen to assert herself, she starts to appear at least as insensitive and bullying as Marius. Miss Helen, for her part, has left a few details out of the story she’s told Elsa. Artists do that. In this case, though, it muddies the psychological waters in interesting ways.

Adele Cabot’s staging is perceptive, if a trifle lackluster, when it comes to sprinkling the dust of genius on the proceedings. Miss Helen’s art doesn’t really seem very central to her life (the set relegates her sculptures to its margins), and whatever it was that made her such an inspiration to Elsa isn’t much in evidence on stage. Elsewhere, I’ve seen the play reverberate with all sorts of art-and-politics associations, but here it’s just a battle over how an elderly woman is going to live out her days. Granted, if you’re coming to the play fresh, you might not miss what isn’t there. Unlike Fugard’s spare early plays, which require enormous precision in production, this one finds him in an Arthur Miller mode, with arguments that propel the plot so efficiently that a staging need only be vigorous to be effective. Olney’s mounting is certainly energetic, especially in that crucial second act.

Still, there’s something missing: the stylization that can make an audience hear a debate over the fate of one unconforming artist as a debate about art itself—and about the place of nonconformity in society.

Those who remember Mecca from its shimmering premiere a decade ago are likely to recall two things vividly: performances so luminous (Fugard himself played the pastor) that the characters seemed lit from within and a setting so pocked with shards of mirror and broken beer bottles that the whole stage flickered and glistened before the lights even came up.

Olney’s version has neither of those attributes. The performances are sturdy rather than fiery, and the set is a misconceived mess that suggests Miss Helen has a fondness for Haight-Ashbury kitsch rather than a genius for capturing light in sculptural form. Faced with the task of creating an eerie, otherworldly environment, designer Robin Stapley has barely bothered to hang a few beads from table legs and decorate a steamer trunk with a fake jewel or two—which means that even with an assist from Daniel McLean Wagner’s multihued spotlights, the effect is decidedly underwhelming when the actors start lighting candles to demonstrate the magic of Miss Helen’s art to the pastor.

As a fan of the notion that less is more and a longtime disparager of such theatrical detritus as levitating truck tires and plunging chandeliers, it pains me to say this, but sometimes, less is just less. CP

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