July 18, 1988 12:00 PM

In the 1950s, when South African actress Yvonne Bryceland first met the young Athol Fugard, she was too terrified to talk to him, though he had not yet written the plays that would lay bare South Africa’s moral agony and make his name world renowned. “I was kind of flighty in those days,” she says. “He was kind of bohemian and an intellectual—very serious, with these blazing eyes and this great beard. I used to avoid him because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.”

Her fears were unfounded, as she discovered in 1969 when she and Fugard first worked together in a production of his People Are Living There. At that point, says the playwright, “we sort of fell into each other’s lives almost as if there had been empty spaces waiting there.” Bryceland became not only one of Fugard’s closest friends but one of the leading interpreters of his work, appearing in seven of his plays. “She’s a perfect instrument for my writing—her voice, her presence, everything,” Fugard says.

This summer, off-Broadway audiences are seeing Bryceland for the first time, in an acclaimed revival of Fugard’s 1984 play The Road to Mecca. Bryceland’s performance, for which she won Britain’s Olivier award in 1986 and an American Obie in May, has delighted reviewers and audiences alike, selling out most nights since it opened in April. Says Bryceland, who is in her late 50s: “It’s the culmination of everything I’ve wanted to do in the theater.”

Mecca is less overtly political than Fugard’s previous works, many of which (“Master Harold”…and the Boys, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead) deal openly with the ravages of apartheid. It tells the story of Helen Martins, an aging white South African artist ostracized by her small-town neighbors because of the odd, fantastical sculptures she fashions for her garden. Disturbed and obscurely threatened by Helen’s stucco camels, peacocks and wise men, all of which she faces toward Mecca, Marius Byleveld, the town’s conservative Afrikaner clergyman (played by Fugard himself), attempts to banish Helen to an old age home. By the end of the play the audience, initially outraged at Byleveld’s narrow-mindedness, has come to pity him as well.

Bryceland, who emigrated 10 years ago to London in large part to escape “the injustice and the apartheid, everything South Africa stands for,” believes Afrikaners in general are to be pitied as well as prodded to change. “Like Marius, they are misguided,” she says. “But it’s not a nation of thugs. South Africa is the Afrikaner’s home, and he is passionate about it. He has nowhere else to go.”

Bryceland (who is of British rather than Afrikaner descent) has not always been politically aware. Born in Cape Town to a railroad foreman and a housewife, she grew up “having a wonderful time” and totally ignorant. To my shame I never really thought about the black maids that used to come to us and then go home at night to wherever they went to.” She married Daniel Bryceland, a real estate agent, immediately after high school. While raising three daughters—now ages 28 to 40—Yvonne began acting in amateur productions around Cape Town, but her husband objected to his wife’s acting. “He was very jealous,” Bryceland says. They divorced in 1960.

Not long afterward, when the South African National Theater was founded, its new company in Cape Town invited Bryceland to join them. She met journalist Brian Astbury, whom she would later marry, in 1960, and as her career began to blossom, so did her social conscience. Seeing Fugard’s 1961 play Blood Knot, the story of two black half brothers, one of whom is light skinned enough to pass for white, played a large part in her awakening. “Nobody had ever written a play like that in South Africa,” she says. “Brian and I were just astounded.”

In 1972, in an attempt to discourage the government from interfering in Fugard’s increasingly controversial productions, Astbury started a private theater called the Space. Its doors were open to all races, a policy that was illegal at the time. Though business flourished, the government was not amused. “I can’t say we were persecuted,” says Bryceland, “but they threatened to arrest us and to close down plays. Government people would come into the theater-restaurant and say, ‘Mr. Astbury, you’ve got blacks and whites eating together—that’s against the law.’ So Brian would say, ‘What do you mean? This is an art gallery; just look at the pictures on the walls. Galleries are open to all races.’ You had to stay one jump ahead.”

Eventually, the constant struggle grew wearying. “We were actually creating problems for the black actors we worked with,” Bryceland says. “They would go back to the townships at night and the radicals would say, ‘What are you doing with that white bunch of pinkos?’ ” In 1978, when she was offered a role by a company in London, she went and decided to stay. Brian joined her a year later.

Today Bryceland and Astbury live quietly in a house overlooking London’s lush Hampstead Heath. Astbury teaches theater at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art; Bryceland acts in plays that strike her fancy. When they visit relatives in Cape Town, they are appalled by how little things have changed. And though they feel torn about having left the fight, they have no desire to return. “We tried to help improve things,” Bryceland says, “and maybe we did something. But our time is over. Now we simply hope with all our being that people will see the light.”