The Road to Mecca takes place in the town of New Bethesda, in the heart of South Africa’s arid Karoo. The year is 1974, and the setting is the home of Miss Helen, an elderly widow whose work as an artist has led to her increasing estrangement from her neighbors. The play opens as Miss Helen’s young friend Elsa Barlow, a teacher from Cape Town, arrives unexpectedly for a visit. The older woman, her appearance unkempt and her small house in need of a thorough cleaning, is flustered by the surprise visit, and the two quarrel as Miss Helen fusses over her guest. Their initial unease dissipates, however, when Elsa delights her friend by playfully pretending to leave and arrive again.
Elsa’s visit to Miss Helen was prompted by a disturbing letter she has received from the older woman, but Miss Helen refuses to discuss the topic. Miss Helen also brushes off Elsa’s inquiry regarding burns on her hands and a burn mark on the window near one of her lamps. The pair talk instead about village gossip and about Elsa, who has angered her superiors by teaching her nonwhite students to question South Africa’s repressive society. She is still troubled by her encounter with a black woman and her child to whom she gave a ride during her drive to New Bethesda. Elsa has also broken off her affair with her boyfriend, who is, she now confesses, a married man.
The two also discuss Miss Helen’s work, an elaborate cement sculpture garden consisting of owls, camels, dozens of Wise Men, and other figures, all facing east—toward Mecca, as Miss Helen explains. She began the sculptures following her husband’s death fifteen years earlier, and they have become a vital source of creative expression as well as a source of conflict with her more conventional neighbors, who regard her work—and undeniable eccentricity—with suspicion. It was her sculptures that led to Miss Helen’s friendship with Elsa, who had stopped, intrigued, years earlier and offered the older woman the only praise and admiration her work had received. Miss Helen’s creative spirit is also on view inside her small house, where the walls are all hung with mirrors and bits of glass that catch and reflect the lamplight. Now, Miss Helen confides, she seems to have reached a barricade on her “road to Mecca,” and she fears an unnamed darkness that has entered her and caused the loss of her creative energy.
Miss Helen admits that she has no visitors besides Elsa; the local pastor, Marius Byleveld; and a young black woman who helps her with the house. Elsa is appalled to learn that Marius is making arrangements for Miss Helen to enter a home for...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)