By Janet I. Martineau
As a college student, Thomas J. Wedge is in the process of completing his masters of fine arts degree in directing from the University of South Dakota. But circumstances currently find him on the adjunct faculty at Saginaw Valley State University and directing its next production, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca. The three-character play set in 1970s apartheid South Africa opens Wednesday, March 21st. “And we are doing it in the small Black Box Theater—in the round, which has never been done there I am told (meaning the audience is on all four sides of the actors),” says Wedge. “It’s a new experience for me in blocking a show and for the three actors acting within it as well.”
The story revolves around Miss Helen, a reclusive Afrikaner widow who has spent years transforming the yard around her desert home into a sculpture garden of her own making. An Afrikaner is a South African of European descent. She is an outcast because of her art, and Afrikaner Fugard uses her to explore the conflict between a fiercely independent artist and a conservative society justly yearning for order—also symbolic of the apartheid issue which infuses his plays, says Wedge.
“Each character in the play is trying to find light, healing. The image of a candle is used a lot—candles light the room since she has no electricity. The inside of her house is a work of art too—mirrors, crushed glass, paint. We are hanging hundreds of glass bottles from the ceiling—light from them reflecting around the theater.”
As for Wedge, who grew up in South Dakota, he and his girlfriend Holly currently live in Midland with their two sons, both of whom are autistic, says Wedge. “Holly is from Essexville. We felt we needed to be close to family at this point, and Midland has a great special ed program that serves our sons, so here we are.”
At first Wedge set up an independent study project with SVSU theater professor Steven Erickson, then came the offer to join the adjunct faculty this past September, and now the opportunity to direct a show as well. “And they allowed me to choose the show to direct,” says Wedge, a Fugard fan. “Road to Mecca (written in 1984, right after his well known Master Harold ... and the Boys) is one of his shows that had never been on Broadway until just this winter. He’s is celebrating his 80th birthday this year.”
Wedge says Mecca is autobiographical in many respects, and was inspired when Fugard was looking to buy a small place to write, visited the New Bethesda area where the play is set, saw the elderly woman who had created that homemade mecca with sculptured glass, and then learned two years later she had committed suicide.
Folded into the story is a local pastor and an English urban schoolteacher from Cape Town who endures 12 hour drives to visit Miss Helen.
“Helen was always judged by her community,” Wedge says of the real life woman. “She was shunned by her community, which was conservative. Kids threw rakes at her. Now her house, called The Owl House, is a museum, a tourist draw for the village.
“That is why I chose to do it in the round. The audience may not get what I am doing, but Helen in this play is surrounded by judging eyes—and the audience is among those judging eyes and, I hope, will be looking at each other too and reflecting on how they are always judging others.
“As I said, this play is about finding light, and looking for people in your life who reflect it and not take it away.”
Although all three characters in the play are white, Wedge has chosen a black actor (Ashton Blue) to play the minister who is trying to get Miss Helen to move into a home for the elderly—a black/white situation which would not have been possible in the days of apartheid. “I am totally comfortable with that because apartheid fades as a theme in the script and the payoff, the compensation, is I get a really good actor,”
In addition, the minister and Miss Helen (played by Kiri Brasseur) are written as elderly, so he is coaching them to act elderly—and he also is getting all three (Mykaela Hopps is the 31-year-old schoolteacher determined to keep Miss Helen free) feeling comfortable with many South Africa terms in the script.
Before turning his focus on directing as a career, Wedge acted in 30 regional shows in South Dakota, many of them at the Black Hills Playhouse. “Actually in college I started out in computer science and math, with a minor in theater, and then just got more and more into theater.”
He is continuing work on his master’s while in mid-Michigan but will have to return to the University of South Dakota for one semester to complete requirements. He then hopes to teach and direct in a college or university setting “because I love working with young actors, young artists.”
The Road to Mecca
SVSU Black Box Theatre
7:30pm March 21-23
$10 adults; $7 students and seniors
© Janet I. Martineau, 2012