The esteemed South African playwright Athol Fugard has so much to say in his impassioned, 1984 drama “The Road to Mecca”—now in a vibrant Weathervane Productions staging in San Francisco — that it is at times overwhelming. 

The first act introduces the intense relationship between eccentric artist Miss Helen (a fragile-looking, expressive Wendy vanden Heuvel), a 70-year-old Afrikaner living alone in a remote village in South Africa, and her closest friend, Elsa (a robust, explosive Kodi Jackman), a twentysomething schoolteacher in Cape Town. The chatter does serve to foreshadow the events of Act 2—but a large part of it is simply unnecessary.  

Elsa has arrived unexpectedly for a visit after a grueling 12-hour drive. She seems like a loose cannon, ready to explode, the opposite of the vulnerable Helen. Over the course of almost 2 ½ hours, we will discover, among other things, why they need each other so much. 

The wordy first act implies a whole host of issues, not just to a possible conflict between the two women but, inevitably, to apartheid (the play is set in 1974; apartheid ended in 1994); to Elsa’s doomed romance; to the possibility that Helen is being pressured to move out of her longtime, cherished home and into a tiny room in an assisted living facility. And more. 

Fugard sets up so many possible concerns for these two women, and the country they live in, that a lot of the first-act chatter meanders, and some of it feels like padding. 

Then the local pastor, played by the excellent Victor Talmadge, shows up at the door.  

Victor Talmadge portrays a sympathetic pastor in “The Road to Mecca.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Once Act 2 begins, just after his arrival—anticipated, in Act 1, with anxiety by Helen and ferocious indignation by Elsa —the issues begin to coalesce, and Fugard’s intricately intertwined plot is indeed absorbing. 

Miss Helen, whose only friends are Elsa and the pastor, is the ultimate outsider artist, viewed with suspicion by the local, stalwartly Christian villagers for her imposing sculpture garden that, for her, represents the fulfillment of a vision of Mecca, the sacred city of Islam. It’s an understatement to say this is her life’s work—it’s her whole raison d’être. (The real-life Miss Helen Martins was a reclusive artist in a village in South Africa. She committed suicide in 1976.) 

Now, suffering from the indignities of age—arthritis, poor vision and more—she feels her artistic dream has ended. That dilemma forms the heart of this touching play that explores aging and loneliness, the transformative power of art making, and more, with great compassion. 

Under the empathetic direction of Timothy Near (artistic director of the late, lamented San Jose Repertory Theatre), the complex characters work their way through Fugard’s dense dialogue with ease. 

Still, both vanden Heuvel and Jackman, so clearly committed to their characters’ troubled inner lives, are too broadly theatrical for Z Below’s small space — or even to seem quite real. Both speak loudly most of the time, when quiet exchanges would be more believable; and Jackman’s dramatic bellowing and frenetic energy often feels downright stagey. By the time we get to the end, after all that overwrought emotion, Miss Helen’s rapturous monologue feels more like a dénouement than the fevered, ecstatic moment it is meant to be. 

L-R, Victor Talmadge, Wendy vanden Heuvel and Kodi Jackman are featured in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca” onstage in San Francisco. (Courtesy Kevin Berne) 

Thankfully, Talmadge’s conflicted pastor rings true throughout.  

 For sure Fugard has lots to say—and Near and all three actors are clearly deeply connected to the playwright’s voice—but he could have said it more succinctly (and without the multiple endings) in one powerful act. 

“The Road to Mecca” continues through June 30 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit