KPBS AIRDATE: May 14, 2004
Age, youth and artistic inspiration. In one play, an elder inspires inadvertently. In another, a teacher pushes his student so hard, disappointment is inevitable. There wouldn’t seem to be much commonality between a work by the prototypically American David Mamet and the quintessentially South African Athol Fugard. But both Mamet’s dark-toned comedy, “A Life in the Theatre,” and Fugard’s drama, “The Road to Mecca,” shine a light on the power of art. Mamet’s central characters are actors in a repertory company. Fugard’s are an aging Afrikaner and a young teacher. Both protégés are awe-struck at first, but the relationships change dramatically over time.
In Mamet’s bittersweet 1977 comedy, we get a backstage view of a rising star and a falling one. The older man, covetous of his subordinate’s possessions, energy, friends and youth, constantly berates and pontificates, dispensing endless advice about stagecraft and life. The younger actor starts out deferential. But as his confidence increases, he grows in stature, even as his teacher crumbles. At the North Coast Repertory Theatre, artistic director David Ellenstein has created an impeccable production. Jonathan McMurtry was born to play this role, which he did a dozen years ago with Ellenstein as his foil. Now Francis Gercke, artistic director of New Village Arts, is the perfect age and temperament for the task. Each gives an outstanding, finely etched performance, providing nuance, flavor and a stirring emotional journey.
An equally balanced twosome takes the stage in 6th @ Penn’s intimate production of Fugard’s 1985 drama, set in the Karoo desert. Miss Helen, an elderly widow, has adorned her garden with an odd assortment of sparkling sculptures created from broken glass, cement and a strong sense of independence. She has turned away from her church to fashion her own image of Paradise. But the real Road to Mecca is in Helen’s mind. Her fierce spirit, even in the face of ostracism, has intrigued and inspired young Elsa, who also defends the browbeaten blacks of her country. Fugard juxtaposes freedom and constraint, trust and love, religion and art, the waning of independence and creativity with age. Under the direction of Patrick Stewart and in the hands of the formidable Priscilla Allen and the adorable Jessica John, these two fascinating women fight for the right to live life on their own terms. Ralph Johnson stalwartly plays the small-minded, mixed-motive pastor who’s trying to put Helen away in a nursing home; her flouting of expectations poses a threat to the fabric of the community.
However disparate, these plays examine art, craft and creative spirit. In these anti-intellectual times, when art is viewed as frivolous or superfluous, dramatic reflection on the artistic life is itself an inspired act.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.