The Nobel-prize winning novelist Edith Wharton once wrote, “There are two ways of spreading light—to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
Mirrors—and candles, too—are both the set dressing and driving metaphor in two recently opened plays, stories in which indelible women stand center-stage to take a good hard look at their world, their choices, and their own naked souls. One was written in the 1970s in South Africa, the other just a few years ago in New York City. Beyond the shows’ mutual use of mirrors, and the fact that the central characters are women, they have little in common, other than this: if you get a chance, you should really try to see them both.
The first, set in a tiny South African community in 1974, is Athol Fugard’s three-actor drama The Road to Mecca—now running at Main Stage West. The play was inspired by the life of artist Helen Martins, though Fugard’s script takes fictional flights of fancy as mystical and inventive as the cement sculptures of owls and camels and elongated wisemen that Martins fashioned and surrounded her tiny rural house with.
Martins, played with bone-weary specificity by Laura Jorgenson, is a lapsed Christian, once driven by the need to create, now trapped in a difficult space, intensely feeling the encroaching darkness she once fought by filling her yard with strangely beautiful creatures. She crams the interior of her house with mirrors, mosaics and hundreds of candles. Frail and uncertain, Helen seriously considers leaving her house and moving to a church-run retirement home, a move that is strongly supported by her one-time minister, Marius, played by John Craven. Marius has secretly loved Helen for years, despite her frightening displays of pagan art making, and worries for her safety as she grows older, also worrying deeply about the state of her soul. Opposing her move from the house is Martin’s schoolteacher friend Elsa, Ilana Niernberger, a strong supporter of Martin and a fierce opponent of the church. Elsa has just arrived from the city in a state of deep sadness and barely controlled rage and heartbreak, the reasons for which take most of the play to reveal themselves.
The resulting three-way showdown comes in gradually building waves leading to an affecting, fiercely hard-won moment of awareness and self-resolution. The set, with it’s mirrors, mosaics and suggestions of sculptures, was designed by director Elizabeth Craven and David Lear, and it’s a marvel, as much a character as everyone else in this powerful play, a marvelous, thoughtful, deeply complex and human examination of the power of light, outside and in.
Mirrors are equally prominent in Theresa Rebeck’s one-woman comedy-drama Bad Dates, now running at Cinnabar Theater. Starring Jennifer King, and directed by Molly Noble, this is a ferociously funny rollercoaster of a show, about a hard-working New York restaurant manager and single-mother named Hayley, who tells her story as she prepares herself for a series of dates, few of which turn out the way she hopes.
Observing her reflection as she tries on an array of outfits, King’s marvelously performed “long-night of the soul” includes hilarious descriptions of each date-gone-wrong, and much more. As Hayley tells the story—which in the second act takes us to some truly surprising and unexpected places—she gradually realizes that finding a person to love won’t happen until she finally figures out what she really wants, and who she really is.
‘Road to Mecca’ runs Thursday–Sunday, through February 21 at Main Stage West. Mainstagewest.com.
‘Bad Dates’ runs through February 21 at Cinnabar Theater, cinnabartheater.org