Writing the little play about big ideas is playwright Lee Blessing's specialty. He did it with A Walk in the Woods--one Russian diplomat, one American (both male) take a stroll and decide the future of nuclear arms--and he does it with Going to St. Ives, now playing in its local premiere at Theatre Three. This time two women--one British, one African--make the life and death decisions but as civilly as possible over tea poured into fragile Blue Willow china cups. How they resolve things will affect each of them personally but might also change the future of geopolitics. Human rights are at stake. Millions of lives hang in the balance. Will you take lemon or milk with that?
The two-act, two-actor play asks interesting questions about the universal implications of personal ethics, the old "butterfly effect" of one little decision rippling out wider and wider until it slams us all with fearsome force. Too bad the drama isn't as powerful. This play sputters badly toward the end, wasting its opportunity to become something akin to Michael Frayn's brilliant, nearly perfect Copenhagen. In St. Ives, the dialogue in Act 1 feels terribly rushed and a tad too neat. Then the plot frays at the edges in Act 2, which ends so abruptly that the curtain call seems premature. Also, it's never made completely clear why two so completely different women would bond so quickly and trust each other so deeply that they would conspire together and ultimately risk their lives for some greater purpose.
The setup is a stunner. Elizabeth Rothan, a frequent star on Theatre Three's little square stage, plays Dr. Cora Gage, an upright British eye doctor still grieving over the death of her 7-year-old son, victim of a gang shooting near a Los Angeles sports arena. Into Cora's cozy parlor in St. Ives, a village near Cambridge, England, comes May N'Kame, a dignified if terrifying figure played by Jubilee Theatre regular Eleanor T. Threatt. May is the mother of the notoriously brutal dictator of an unnamed African nation. She'll go blind unless the doctor performs sight-saving surgery. Cora is willing to do the operation, but first she has a favor to ask. May's son has imprisoned four doctors who have refused to participate in acts of torture on political prisoners. Cora wants May to persuade him to free the doctors as a humanitarian gesture. Good idea, says May, making the chilling observation that "without the chance of mercy, cruelty loses its keenest edge."
Could May be as much of a monster as her Idi Amin-like son? Not so fast. She has a counter-proposition for Cora. Would the good doctor be willing to break the Hippocratic Oath if it meant saving a nation? (This juicy plot turn occurs at precisely the 30-minute point in the first act. Blessing's a pro at this.)
Each woman has met her match in the other. Back and forth they go, Cora and May, arguing their cases and making points pro and con. Among the issues they tackle: the world's apathy toward acts of genocide, the roots of racism, the satisfaction of vengeance, a mother's instinctive protection of her son (no matter how evil he is), even the very definition of "civilization." It's all smart and well-wrought and infused with dark wit. "He's a human being!" yelps Cora, referring to May's notorious son. "There you go again," May says, "making snap judgments."
By intermission, we're still not sure who's going to do what. After all the high-flown palaver, we just want to see them do something. Not quite enough does, it turns out. The second act shifts to six months later in May's little garden back in Africa. Now she's pouring tea for the visiting Cora, who has arrived in stylish mufti to plead with May to make yet another dangerous, life-altering decision (suffice to say that something major already has happened at this point in the story). Cora gets hysterical with emotion. May grows even more stoic and implacable. When Cora begs her friend to leave Africa and live in exile back in Britain, May replies coldly, "We are acquaintances. We are accomplices. We are not friends." She remains unmoved.
Ultimately, so do we, as Going to St. Ives winds ungracefully toward its end. For all its lofty ideals, its pointed references to the horrors in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, its heavy questions about the greater good, something about this play just doesn't take hold of the heart the way it should. Part of the problem lies in the pacing of this production. Director Pam Myers-Morgan has Cora and May volleying the dialogue back and forth at high speed with extra topspin on the best lines. Rothan, who tends toward breathy elocution anyway, quickly works herself into a froth. Threatt gives the better and more measured performance simply by taking more time and letting May move and speak with an air of quiet mystery. She fights the urge to overplay, where Rothan gives in.
The title of the play, by the way, comes from the old schoolroom puzzle:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
The answer, of course, is one. The man, his wives, the sacks and cats are coming from St. Ives. The speaker is on the way there. Using this in the play's title is the playwright's not so subtle clue that the simplest answer is sometimes the correct way to solve what sounds like a complex problem. It's also his way of asking if there will be one or two women returning to that cozy parlor in St. Ives.
Like the riddle, Going to St. Ives appears to present a complicated set of dilemmas, when really the answers turn out to be so simple. The characters have to see that for themselves, so the clever playwright makes sure one's an eye doctor and the other's going blind. What's seen and not seen are important elements here. It's a two-woman play that still feels heavily populated by men, even if the men the women constantly talk about remain offstage. Cora has disconnected from her husband in the first act, too torn up by their son's death to keep the marriage going. She's divorced from him by the second act, and her devotion to May hints at something closer to romantic love. May's son, the bloodthirsty young tyrant still partial to his mother's cooking, seems to lurk nearby in every scene, as does the odd, menacing bodyguard. Men don't come off well in this one. Through his strong female characters, Blessing implies that men deserve the blame for a lot of bad stuff in the world--whether it's the tragic decision to take a child to a basketball game in a dicey neighborhood or declaring, as the dictator does, that "75 percent of the population are traitors" and ordering mass murders. Such things could be avoided, Blessing seems to say, if only the world were run by women willing to talk things out over a nice cup of tea.
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