Milwaukee actor Linda Stephens might soon draw her lengthy acting career to a close, and she’s turning to the character she currently portrays for guidance in navigating her final act.
Stephens, 66, plays eccentric artist Helen Martins in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca.” Fugard’s least political and most metaphorical play closes Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theatreworks’ 20th season.
The play is based on Martins, who spent her final 20 years creating The Owl House, a collection of imaginative sculptures made out of concrete, wire and crushed glass found in and around her late parents’ home in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region. Treated as a social outsider in the small town of Karoo, Martins upset their sense of propriety in Apartheid-era South Africa.
In the play, a well-meaning local pastor (Jonathan Gillard Daly) labors to get Martins to move into a seniors home, while a friend (Bri Sudia) fights to help the elderly woman retain her personal freedom. The story dramatizes metaphorically how Apartheid limited artists’ creativity, according to Suzan Fete, who directs the production.
“I believe Miss Helen may have begun her work as an attempt to beautify her world, but what could have been merely a bizarre experiment in home and garden decorating transformed into a true artistic statement with symbolism, expression and thematic consistency,” Fete says. “In that sense her work represents the yearnings of the human spirit as interpreted by a visual artist.”
The story has personal meaning for Stephens, whose life contains some uncanny parallels to Martins’ life. The South African artist trained as a teacher, married a teacher and traveled her country doing theatrical productions. Stephens married an actor, became an actor and traveled the United States doing theatrical productions. Both Martins and Stephens divorced their husbands at age 30. Both women suffered from arthritis – Stephens is having her knees replaced after the show’s run – and both women dealt with problems concerning their eyesight.
When it comes to life passages, Stephens says she’s on a parallel track with the character she plays, and in some ways she’s looking to the artist for answers about her future.
“I am almost the same age and in the same place that Helen is in the play, a place of letting go and learning what that means,” Stephens says. “Letting go of who you were up until now is very hard. You feel compelled to listen to others who have ideas of what you should do or how you should be, but you know it’s better finding your own way.”
Martins continued to find her own way, including taking on a black male assistant, which further ostracized her from the local community. Years of working with ground glass eventually caused her to go blind, and in 1976 she took her own life by swallowing a mixture of caustic soda, ground glass and olive oil.
It took her three days to die. The Owl House is now a museum and provisional monument.
Martins does not die in the play. Other than the character and her relation to her community, the narrative was fully imagined by Fugard. The militantly anti-Apartheid playwright never met Martins, but he was deeply affected by her predicament and what it said about the artistic spirit.
“‘The Road to Mecca’ focuses on the possibility that creative energy can exhaust itself, probably the most frightening reality an artist can face,” Fugard told The Paris Review in 1989. “Every artist lives in total fear of that. I know I do. I kept wondering whether, with an act of terrible prescience, in describing the end of Helen Martins’ creative energy, I was in fact writing my own epitaph.”
In addition to marking parallels with Stephens’ life, Martins has much in common with the late Mary Nohl. The Fox Point artist created a series of outdoor concrete sculptures prior to her death in 2001, and locals referred to her Beach Road residence, now on the National Register of Historic Places, as “The Witch’s House.” That sobriquet also was applied to Martins’ Owl House.
“While both Mary Nohl and Helen Martins are often called outsider artists, Nohl received a formal arts education. Otherwise there are many similarities,” Fete says. “Both women created whimsical, odd figures and sculptures, many made from ‘found’ objects that other people might think of as junk. Both women were eccentric, reclusive and regarded with derision by their communities.”
After hearing that Stephens was appearing in “The Road to Mecca,” a friend gave her a small ceramic created by Nohl. The artwork, which might find its way into the complex and expressive set designed by Lisa Schlenker, is a totem to what both women represent to Stephens as artists approaching the end of their careers and their lives.
“Helen says near the end of the play, ‘This is as far as I can go,’” Stephens notes. “She says, ‘Just as I taught myself how to light candles, and what that means, I must teach myself now how to blow them out ... and what that means.’ For me, I’m not sure how much more acting I’ll do in my life, and I must teach myself what that means.”
Renaissance Theatreworks’ production of Athol Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca” runs April 5-28 at The Studio Theatre in Milwaukee’s Broadway Theatre Center. For more information, visit www.r-t-w.com.