Red Herring Productions' “Road to Mecca” examines darkness and light

In the midst of a neighborhood dealing with transition and transformation (for better and/or worse), Red Herring Productions brings Athol Fugard's “The Road to Mecca,” a story of a woman struggling to maintain her identity and her artistic expression, to the Franklinton Playhouse.

A fictionalized tale based on the real-life story of Helen Martins, an Afrikaner in rural, apartheid-era South Africa, “The Road to Mecca” finds the main character increasingly removed from her longtime community of Afrikaners, as she feeds her growing fascination with light by making sculptures of ground glass. Her community, in the person of Marius, the local pastor, expresses concern for her well-being, suggesting she leave her home and move into a senior-care facility. Helen's young friend, Elsa, a teacher and activist, encourages her to keep making her art, reinforcing the metaphor of light versus dark.

“Marius expresses conformity, fitting in. That stoic, repressive, Puritanical side,” Red Herring Artistic Director Michael Herring said in an interview at the Playhouse. “Elsa represents freedom, liberty, openness and vulnerability. The people of the village resent [Helen]. They're jealous of her and afraid of her because she's such a free spirit.”

Herring directs the three-person cast — Josie Merkle as Helen, Verne Hendrick as Marius and Jordan Davis as Elsa — through Fugard's script as battle lines are drawn, with each side staking its position on what's best for Helen. The juxtaposition is apt, given Herring's commitment to teaching and mentoring young people in Franklinton since relocating the company to the community last year. Herring suggested a layer of social meaning, bemoaning the “rise of the alt-right and people who think the way you make the world safe is by closing yourself off … and shutting down.” “That is not the way to live life,” he said, “but [rather with] openness and vulnerability. When we're vulnerable, we're the strongest.”

In the midst of this struggle, Helen begins to come to grips with the deeper metaphor of light and dark — her own mortality.

“It's a story of a candle flame that is fighting against being snuffed out by impending darkness,” Herring said.