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The Road to Mecca: Moments of piercing beauty transform a talky play; plus, Sky Gilbert's Hackerlove

Diana Leblanc in Soulpepper’s production of The Road to Mecca.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Soulpepper

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
Athol Fugard
Directed by
David Storch
David Fox, Diana Leblanc, Shannon Taylor
The Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Runs Until
Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There are moments in the theatre where a kind of magic takes hold – and it's as if you have been transported into another dimension.

In the second act of The Road to Mecca, a 1987 play set in the Karoo region of the Eastern Cape currently being revived by Soulpepper, South African playwright Athol Fugard has written just such a scene where the physical world seems to dissolve in front of you.

Afrikaner Helen (played by the formidable director Diana Leblanc, making a rare return to acting) is explaining why she has spent the 15 years since her husband died turning her house into her own version of Mecca, surrounded by statues of animals and monsters that frighten her provincial, Christian neighbours. She is described by the other characters as glowing brighter than the candles that fill her house – and at the right moment Leblanc's performance blazes and you see the world through the aging outsider artist's eyes. It is intensely, disorientingly beautiful.

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It's a long, long road to get there, however. The Road to Mecca is an unusual work for Fugard, the anti-apartheid Afrikaner who was writing, directing and performing in multiracial theatre as early as 1958, insofar as we only hear of the oppression of black South Africans through the mouths of anguished, white characters, rather than see it. He's not as quaint a writer as you might imagine from this play.

Set in 1974, the play opens with Elsa, a young, firebrand schoolteacher, arriving at Miss Helen's house after receiving a disturbing letter from her friend – and immediately driving 12 hours to see her.

Elsa's exhausted character, we're told, is strident and almost always shouting, and Soulpepper newcomer Shannon Taylor plays her precisely just that way. She says she's there to help Miss Helen from being forced out of her home, but at times her self-righteous hectoring borders on elder abuse. It tests one's patience for the first act, though you can't really fault Taylor for this.

In this first half, the two female characters – twentysomething and seventysomething – spend an awfully long time simply catching up with one another. A letter is read out loud and revelations are delayed by kettles coming to a boil. It's endless exposition – and the language is, for the most part, mundane. Director David Storch has the actors performing in their Canadian accents, only making it all the more colourless.

Thankfully, local preacher Marius Byleveld shows up in act two, and in the form of David Fox, a venerable actor who takes his time with his lines but is watchable no matter what. You expect his character to be the villain, but he seems truly motivated to help Miss Helen – and Fox saturates his soul with love. Leblanc is a little awkward when silent, but luminous when she needs to be. And Taylor's performance has an excellent payoff – by the end, her ferocity was bringing to mind the undilutable, young idealists of Wajdi Mouawad's plays and, in a way, Antigone.

South African theatre was widely disseminated when apartheid was still in effect – and international curiosity has been re-aroused since Nelson Mandela's death. For a multiracial look at the Karoo 40 years after Fugard's play, you may want to check out Mies Julie – a contemporary adaptation of Strindberg's play that's in Toronto at World Stage at Harbourfront Centre this week. When it passed through Vancouver last month, The Globe's Marsha Lederman wrote that "this visceral window into how far things have not come in this rural landscape is illuminating and powerful."

The Road to Mecca runs until May 28.

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Also playing

In his new play Hackerlove, provocateur Sky Gilbert has a brilliant insight into the affair of Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. soldier currently in jail for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks, and Adrian Lamo, the hacker who snitched her out. Manning, who was known as Bradley Manning when arrested, is a trans woman who came out as such the day after she was sentenced to 35 years in prison; Lamo, meanwhile, is an out bisexual. To Gilbert, the way these two view their gender identity and sexuality is related to how they see the world. Trans men and women are idealists who want to change themselves and the world, while bisexuals are pragmatists who will work with what cards they've been dealt.

Hackerlove consists of a series of "what if" scenes between Manning (a seductive Kawa Ada) and Lamo (an Aspergerian Nick Green) – some more intriguing than others. Particularly illuminating is Gilbert's situation of Manning in the context of other historical female traitors – and he intersperses scenes from a 1931 film about Mata Hari starring Greta Garbo effectively. There's an extended sequence of the two strapping gentlemen in the buff, to please Gilbert's longstanding audience at Buddies in Bad Times. Well-acted and with a pleasing deconstructed design by Andy Moro, it's worth a look and a think.

Hackerlove runs until May 11.

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