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Three souls navigate Burning Coal Theatre’s The Road to Mecca by night; Plays Well With Others offers a theatrical eulogy for the self-absorbed.

Dark Road 

Three souls navigate The Road to Mecca by night; Plays Well With Others offers a dubious eulogy for the self-absorbed

I've basically learned to avoid those "preview" performances some companies schedule during final dress rehearsal, the night before a show opens to the public. From my own years of experience in the theater, productions almost invariably need every night of rehearsal--and then some--to iron out problems and make fundamental discoveries about characters and script.

Based on a performance she saw the night before it opened to the public, critic Orla Swift, in last Friday's News and Observer, castigated Elissa Olin's work in Burning Coal Theatre Company's production of The Road to Mecca. Given my knowledge of Swift's work, I'm prepared to conclude that the actor in question had a really rough night during final dress. Such occurrences are commonplace enough for the theater to have coined an adage for them: Bad dress rehearsals make for good performances.

But the problem with the dismissal of Olin's work that found its way to print is the same one that faces all pre-public evaluations. It did not fundamentally describe, or do justice to, the show the public saw when the play actually opened. My purpose here is not to criticize the work of a colleague. Indeed, in eight years I have reviewed my fair share of pre-public theater performances--willingly at first, and then increasingly under duress. But I do mean to question the practice by which papers regularly request to see multi-week theater runs before they open, and to ask what favors companies believe they are getting when they permit them to. I do this because an injustice was clearly committed in this case.

When Mecca opened for the public, it was ready. Ms. Olin evinced none of the systemic line problems attributed to her dress rehearsal performance, and her work as Elsa Barlow, a fierce, compassionate and independent young South African school teacher, ultimately made as strong a contribution to the Burning Coal production as Alice Cannon's intricate interpretation of Miss Helen. As the play's central character, she's an eccentric aging folk artist whose "Mecca" in the forbidding desert scrub land of New Bethesda comes to resemble a cross between the Watts Towers of Los Angeles and Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens.

Athol Fugard's taut three-character play chronicles nothing less than one woman's fight for her own soul. After the loss of her husband, Miss Helen turned to art for the first time in her life, finding solace in crafting an outdoor menagerie of fantastic creatures out of concrete, scrap metal and glass. Such representations were never well received in the arid culture of a small African village, which long ago made Helen a social outcast. But the crisis at the play's beginning goes far beyond years of small-town ostracism. Miss Helen fears her artistic vision is failing as well as her physical eyesight. Her creativity is gone, her confidence is shattered, and she is not surrounded by friends. As she senses her own spiritual light failing, shadows gather--content, up to point, to bide their time. She can sense the villagers waiting in them.

A thinly veiled suicide note to Barlow propels the teacher on a 12-hour trek from Cape Town to intervene. But as she struggles to pull Helen toward light, she encounters Marius, a local preacher just as determined to yank the artist in the opposite direction. It's a compelling tug of war, overt at times, deceptively subtle at others. Ultimately, though, both look on, unable to intercede. The fight between darkness and light is ultimately Helen's alone; like the two protagonists, we hold our breath as one soul struggles for balance, tilting one way first, and then another.

Alice Cannon's performance is an achievement as her Miss Helen alternates between a child-like lightness and considerably grimmer notes. Olin makes the kind of no-nonsense amazon I'd want on my side as I faced the dark. On opening night, her accent occasionally slipped--the only flaw I noticed in an otherwise fine performance.

Director Jerry Davis is discerning enough not to direct Burning Coal alumnus David Dossey as a cardboard prince of darkness in the role of Marius. Like many in the clergy, he's officious, self-possessed and convinced of the rightness of his views. None of these are mortal sins, nor does their sum qualify Marius for the ranks below. It's telling that they don't have to for Helen's soul to be and stay in danger. This seems almost as crucial a point as any other in Fugard's play.

Robert John Andrusko's threadbare set gives little to none of the visual magic of Owl House, that richly described place of mirrors, colored glass and light. The rest of the production the public encountered on opening night was well worth seeing, however.

If we criticize a premature review, we must also recognize that a critic could have only been in the house the night before they opened by permission. Indeed, over the years I have sometimes felt some companies were eager to have me see a show before opening: In exchange for the "break" they were giving me or my paper, they fully expected one in return. "Now remember, you're only seeing a rehearsal," some would say--an implicit request that critical evaluation be tempered, if not suspended. And indeed, having weathered my own fair share of inauspicious final rehearsals, I have conferred the benefits of doubt on more than one occasion.

The ticket-buying public never was a party to the uncertain, unstated deals struck in those conversations. Yet they fundamentally influenced those productions' critical coverage. If it is to Swift's credit that no such bargains appear in her unsparing review, that virtue is fully negated in a review that doesn't begin to reflect what the public actually saw when Mecca opened.

Whenever a critic admits to seeing a pre-public preview, at least two questions should be raised in the readers' minds. What sort of compromise, if any, did the critic have to make in order to see it? And how did the show play when it actually opened?

Be careful how you trust a naïve narrator. Particularly when he's the author's alter ego. And particularly when he's already in his 30s when the flashbacks start. These are the cautionary notes from Coats Guiles and Jeff Storer's adaptation of Plays Well With Others, Allan Gurganus' semi-autobiographical account of three people on the edge of 1970s New York art culture at the dawn of the years of plague.

In the workshop production of the play at Manbites Dog Theater, Hartley, our guide, is a far too perfect host. He's little less than an angel--a particularly ironic turn since he hangs out with such less-than-saintly friends. Having been manipulated by both painter Alabama Byrnes and Robert Gustafson, who ultimately die from AIDS, living to tell the tale is one of Hartley's two consolations in this work. The other involves having once been somewhat close with two geniuses, more or less.

Genius, that overworked term, seems to be the ultimate aphrodisiac in this story, the one quality that excuses a constellation of unfeeling and antisocial tendencies. But even if mourning becomes Narcissus, in the process of articulating three valuable relationships, Hartley somehow devolves into the designated, sacrificial doormat. Apparently we're to feel pity for him, if we cannot bring ourselves to care about his choice in boorish playmates. At this point the script makes it difficult to do either. Back to the workshop, gentlemen. EndBlock

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Thanks for this incisive piece. Nathaniel Mackey has more to say then any one poet since he embraces all worlds.

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Thanks, Chris. This is a splendid tribute to Nate.

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