The Road to Mecca tells the story of a reclusive and ailing widow in rural South Africa in 1974 who follows her artistic muse by creating strange sculptures. The widow, played by Rosemary Harris, finds herself the centre of a tug-of-war between a local priest, played by Jim Dale, who finds her work to be idolatrous and wants to pack her off to a retirement home, and a young school teacher, played by Carla Gugino, who cares for the elder woman, finding her inspiring and urging her to keep creating uncomfortable art.
The play was inspired by a real playwright Athol Fugard knew in passing named Helen Martins, who, after an uneventful life, turned herself into an artist, covering the walls of her home with crushed glass patterns and filling her yard with playful concrete sculptures of owls, sheep, camels, religious icons and imaginary beings all facing east toward Mecca. Shunned by her neighbours as crazy, she nevertheless kept working on her art until she took her own life in 1976. After languishing for decades in a state of disrepair, her home is now a popular tourist attraction, perhaps a vindication of her uniqueness.
Gugino, 40, starred in a number of films such as Watchmen and Spy Kids and was previously on Broadway in Desire Under the Elms in 2009 and After the Fall in 2004. The complexity of the role attracted Harris, who has acted alongside Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, won a Tony Award in 1967 for The Lion in Winter and earned an Oscar nomination for Tom & Viv, but may be best known as Aunt May in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films.
"At my age, which probably isn't a secret any more, playwrights don't write parts for women octogenarians," says Harris, who was last on Broadway in The Royal Family with Jan Maxwell. Playwright Fugard, who is celebrating his 80th birthday with revivals of his plays in New York this year, has often stopped by to see how Gugino and Harris are doing with the play.