Review: Two Troubled Mothers Conspire to Murder in “Going to St. Ives” at Barrington Stage

Lee Blessing’s plays are built on the concept of two people exploring troublesome questions. In his best known play A Walk in the Woods, it was nuclear disarmament and global politics. In Going to St. Ives at Barrington Stage Company, the subject turns to colonialism and the brutal carnage of politics in Africa, raising troubling questions about morality, politics and personal responsibility. It is an intellectual night out with big and troubling issues.

You could say that Blessing is an explorer. He writes small plays around big ideas. These works often take unusual routes to get to their heart, but after seeing one of his works, Going to St. Ives for example, you find yourself understanding some aspect of the world a while lot better. You could summarize this play as the tale of two mothers who conspire to kill one of their sons. But that would miss the whole point.

That Barrington Stage has undertaken another of Blessing’s works (BSC did Black Sheep in Sheffield in 2002) is not surprising. He is a brilliant expository writer whose works exude dramatic flair along with the clash of ideas.

The subject matter of this play is not at all ordinary, indeed it looks squarely at the violence in post-Colonial Africa and tries to make moral and ethical sense of it. It is not reduced to some simplistic black or white.

As the play begins, the British eye surgeon Dr. Cora Cage (Gretchien Egolf) is serving tea to a patient, the imposing May N’Kame (Myra Lucretia Taylor). She is suffering from acute closed-angle glaucoma, in need of surgery. The patient is also the mother of a murderous son who calls himself the Emperor of his dusty nation.

Gretchen Egolf as Dr.Cora Gage in Africa.

Like a cat stalking its prey, N’Kama’s eyes narrow as she questions why the doctor invited her for tea. The Doctor and the patient spar until their hidden truths begin to reveal themselves.The Doctor has a request: she wants N’Kame to convince her son to free four doctors who were arrested for refusing to revive patients who were being tortured only so they could be savaged some more. By the second scene we discover that N’Kama has an agenda too, she wants an undetectable chemical with which to poison her son who has killed thousands of her countrymen plus members of her family.

Blessing is a very controlled writer, but there were a few moments in which the death of one or another of the sons began to creep into soap opera territory, allowing both actors heightened emotions, but the playwright soon regains his senses and returns to the subjects at hand. No matter how well acted, the subject matter provides the real drama here.

In Act Two the deed is done, and Doctor Cage travels is in Africa visiting N’Kame who has been found guilty of murder and is sentenced to soon die. Blessing uses the ritual of a tea service to tie the two halves together, just one of many devices he employs to bond the two together. As mothers with loving husbands and sons, each has had a violent loss which affects them deeply. But for all the similarities they come from different cultures, and the cultural differences prove to be difficult to fathom in each other.

Here the actors Gretchen Egolf (Cora) and Myra Lucretia Taylor (May) create their roles in completely different ways. Taylor’s May is direct, demanding but patient. Egolf’s Cora asks her questions obliquely, cautiously and is, as so many doctors are, impatient. When May takes exception to something Cora says, she rises to leave, and Cora backwaters.

The play seems to develop along two lines, the first being direct, with the African mother having a clear agenda and a willingness to accept whatever repercussions her actions might bring her.

Cora thinks she has firmly held convictions too, but they turn out to be less straightforward, indeed malleable, and she is willing to trade them for a higher good.

You can see the pain in Egolf’s eyes as she internalizes the conflicts, and the resignation in Taylor’s as she accepts her duty to murder and then face the consequences. There are no winners here.

Myra Lucretia Taylor as May N'Kame explains it all.

As May N’Kame, Myra Lucretia Taylor rules the stage every moment she is on it, which is 99% of the time. The accent she chose for her role may be new to your ears. But she is consistent in its delivery so it quickly grows easier to understand. Egolf was wonderful in her role, yet didn’t seem quite physically right for the role of the doctor. Not that a surgeon has to be built like a body-builder. Surgeons require sufficient muscles for controlling (in this case) the mechanics of a laser device which are used on the eye which is restrained in an S&M looking contraption. Her arms and hands were too slight, and her bearing somewhat too tentative for that of an eye surgeon.

The first act takes place in St. Ives, a smallish town near Cambridge, England, and the second at N’Kame’s home in Africa. The settings were designed with a combination of cleverness and functionality by Brian Prather. All but the essentials are pared away, leaving only the simplest elements. Two chairs placed at either end of a low tea table. A curved wall with stylized Blue Willow renderings (Act 1) and Political Posters (Act 2) serve to underscore the two main themes of the play. No flashy lighting is called for so the clarity of Scott Pinkney’s design does much to keep the focus on the actors, with no distracting razzle-dazzle.

Kristina Sheshkoff’s costumes are wonderfully colorful for N’Kame but feel wrong, even somewhat naive for Dr. Gage. I doubt there is a surgeon alive who would wear a neckerchief tied like Dale Evans these days. If anything it would have been functionally knotted to mop up the sweat when visiting Africa.

While Going to St.Ives is not Lee Blessings most famous work (he won the 1988 tony and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for A Walk in the Woods) it is nevertheless one of his most thought provoking.

Barrington Stage Company has found an audience in the Berkshires for “smart” plays that inform and deepen our understanding of the world. These are no twenty second sound bites that pass for news on television. Going to St. Ives is bursting with dueling concepts and meaty acting roles, all presented in the living room like intimacy of their Stage 2 facility. Spending an evening there you feel privileged to explore profound issues of our times with them. It’s theatre with depth and meaning, the perfect antidote for caring people in a superficial, selfish world.

Barrington Stage Company presents ‘Going to St. Ives’ by Lee Blessing; directed by Tyler Marchant; sets by Brian Prather; costumes by Kristina Sneshkoff; lighting by Scott Pinkney; sound by Allison Smartt; director of production, Jeff Roudabush; production stage manager, Michael Andrew Rodgers; associate producer, Natasha Sinha. Cast: Myra Lucretia Taylor (May N’Kame) and Gretchen Egolf (Dr. Cora Gage). At Stage 2, Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA . Running time: two hours.June 22 – July 9, 2011.

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