A journey of respect and forgiveness
Members of the Vermont Theatre Company rehearse a scene from “The Road to Mecca” at the Hooker-Dunham Theater in Brattleboro.

A journey of respect and forgiveness

VTC’s staging of ‘The Road to Mecca’ explores identity, aging, politics, and relationships

BRATTLEBORO — Ian Hefele has finally realized his long-held dream of staging in America a work by South African writer Athol Fugard.

For the next two weekends, March 16-18 and 23-25, Vermont Theater Company presents Fugard's The Road to Mecca at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., in downtown Brattleboro.

The play concerns a senior South African widow, Miss Helen, who has been working on an overgrown sculpture garden. Although a neighbor, pastor Marius, urges Helen to move to a senior home, a Cape Town schoolteacher Elsa arrives to encourage Helen in her art.

“This is a moving story about an eccentric old artist who, with or without the help of the people around her, battles darkness and despair to find her spiritual center or mecca,” Hefele writes in a press release.

The Road to Mecca was inspired by the real-life story of Helen Martins, who lived in Nieu-Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa and created The Owl House, now a provincial heritage site.

'A journey of forgiveness'

Directed by Hefele, the cast includes Wendy Almeida as Miss Helen, Arthur Pettee as Marius Byleveld, and Bridget McBride as Elsa Barlow.

The Road to Mecca really exemplifies a journey of forgiveness and understanding on many levels,” Hefele writes. “This play explores identity, aging, politics, and relationships, explorations [that] take place across the political spectrum, the urban and rural divide, young and old, as well as across cultures.

“Through the course of the play, we are implored to accept people for who they are and respect each other in spite of our differences. All of this action takes place in the Karoo desert in South Africa during the 1970s. This setting is enough to make it very different from 2018 Brattleboro, but as the play goes on, we must ask ourselves, is it really that different?”

Hefele is relatively new to the Southern Vermont area, although he grew up nearby, in Connecticut. In 2011, he came to Brattleboro to study and work at SIT. Before that, he had spent time in the Peace Corps in Mozambique where he was also artistic director for an English Language Theatre Company.

Continuing his interest in theater when back in America, Hefele joined the board of VTC in 2014. Hefele's previous directing credits in Southern Vermont include directing 10 Minute Plays at Actor's Theatre Playhouse and staged readings at SIT.

Not until this year did Hefele finally summon his courage to tackle the challenge of directing The Road to Mecca. His desire to stage the work was not only because he wanted to highlight the concerns people face in Africa, but also because he wanted to help introduce a great African author to the American theater community.

Novelist, actor, director

Playwright, novelist, actor, and director, Fugard is best known for his political plays opposing the system of apartheid. A film directed by Gavin Hood based on Fugard's novel Tsotsi won the 2005 Academy Award for best foreign language film.

The recipient of many awards, honors, and honorary degrees, Fugard is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

“No matter how celebrated an author he may be, the fact is, Fugard is very little known in this country, basically because productions of his works are so rare over here,” Hefele says.

Since American audiences aren't familiar with the social background, Hefele thinks Fugard can be difficult to stage.

“The historical context of Fugard's plays is very important.” Hefele says.

The Road to Mecca was written during the dying days of Apartheid in South Africa,” Hefele writes. “This was 1985, P.W. Botha was president, and a state of emergency was taking hold. Many thought the bloated bureaucracy of the apartheid state would never end.”

“Nelson Mandela was in jail at the time the play takes place,” Hefele says. “It was virtually impossible to imagine how things would change and Mandela would be president of South Africa in 15 years. People like pastor Marius who contend that things are just as they are and always will be the same are disproven by the historical reality.

“In that way, I feel this play carries a message of hope. Although apartheid was terrible, it also was doomed. As we seem to have the need to remind ourselves nowadays more insistently, although every society has its hiccups, I believe human progression is always moving forward.”

Hefele writes that all three characters in The Road to Mecca struggle with the need to communicate “their true feelings to each other before it's too late. They all manage to in the end but with varying outcomes.

“In this current climate of increasing hate, intolerance, and outright dictator-like leadership, I hope we can learn the lessons of The Road to Mecca. Humanize and accept people of all types, let them live in their meccas, and you might just find yourself on the road to yours.”

Dream cast

Of all of Fugard's works to present, Hefele chose The Road to Mecca partially because he could cast it.

“I think it is important to be racially sensitive in casting Fugard's works, but frankly there are so few black actors in the area, and since Fugard so often deals with racial relations in his plays, finding the right actors for the parts is important and here near impossible,” Hefele says.

The Road to Mecca, however, has only three characters, all of whom are white. Hefele drew up a dream cast and sent invitations to the local actors he hoped to work with. Luckily all three accepted, and they have been rehearsing the play since Thanksgiving.

“All three parts are challenging, if only because all the actors must face the difficulty of speaking in dialect, either British South African or Afrikaans, a dialect which finds its origins in the early Dutch colonizers of the country,” Hefele says.

Beyond all his other reasons for hoping to direct a work by Fugard, Hefele has a very personal reason to stage The Road to Mecca: Miss Helen reminded him of his grandmother.

“I recently had found out that my grandmother was dying,” he says. “She was 92 and had a good long life. Actually she was not even a family relation. She met us in 1961, so she became an overseer over successive generations of the our family.

“When my mom died in 1990, she helped raise the three of us. Now that I am in my 30s and feel that I have made a safe transition to adulthood, I look back with gratitude on all she has done for my family.

“Like Miss Helen, she was quite a character. She had been a Catholic nun, but with a renegade personality. She told us to question everything. She also told us to trust no one, but later I came to realize that she trusted our family implicitly. My work on this play is a tribute to her.”

Hefele's grandmother assisted with the staging of The Road to Mecca. Since Fugard's play takes place in Miss Helen's home, Hefele put a lot of emphasis on the set design, with his grandmother's help.

“Some people go so far as to claim that the set is the fourth character of this play,” Hefele says. “Helen's mecca was her way of expressing herself. So I have had a lot of fun recreating it on stage. To make the set a very lived-in space, I used a lot of things from my late grandmother's home, which I placed all over the stage.

“I also have taken out the curtains and put up mirrors all around. As the audience walks into the theater, they will find themselves right in middle of the set, with lights and African colors everywhere.

“At the reception after the opening night performance, the audience will be invited to come onstage into Miss Helen's home - that is so long as they don't take any of my grandmother's tchotchkes, although it will be tempting.”

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