It sounded like such a good idea. And, for the very patient among us, rewards do arrive at their own leisurely pace.
Yet there is no denying that "The Road to Mecca," even with the priceless Rosemary Harris atop a fine acting trio, turns out to be a slow curve instead of a kickoff to Signature Theatre's upcoming season of Athol Fugard's important and wonderful work.
The talky 1984 meditation -- revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre before the start of Signature's series -- is atypical of the South African playwright in many ways.
Unlike his formative, explosive dramas, "Mecca" is only peripherally about racial politics. Unlike his male-dominated explorations, this one hinges on relationships among three South African whites for whom apartheid is mostly background for themes about the artistic impulse, loneliness and conformity.
The play always has been long-winded, and symbols can be a burden. But this also was always a thoughtful, beguiling oddity that raises uneasy questions about freedom, trust and the moral ambiguity in seemingly obvious motives.
Alas, in Gordon Edelstein's cautious, small-scaled staging in the large American Airlines Theatre, such complex intimacies strain to be heard, much less understood. Harris, with her creamy face full of dark secrets, has never been an artist who reaches out to grab an audience. She bewitches us to come to her. She does here, too, but the pull has never before felt even slightly like an effort.
Still, she is both fearless and touchingly vulnerable as Miss Helen, an aging widow who became an outcast in the harsh desert town by creating bizarre Mecca-facing sculptures and transforming her home with sparkly sunset colors and candles.
Carla Gugino brings a lovely, snappy affection as her young best friend, also a troubled renegade, who rushes in from faraway after Helen sends her an alarming letter. Jim Dale finds delicate cracks in the upright preacher who pressures Helen to leave her private universe for a rest home.
Audiences who stay concentrated should appreciate how Fugard peels away the layers that separate our best intentions from the ways we use people to enforce our own beliefs. Even though life in the desert feels a bit musty this time, Fugard's voice is not.
WHAT "The Road to Mecca"
WHERE American Airlines Theatre
INFO $67-$117; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Slow and talky, but still Fugard