Going to St. Ives
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 27, 2005
What would you do if your son was a monster, a dictator of an "empire" who murdered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen? That's one of the central questions in Lee Blessing's compelling play Going to St. Ives, which is receiving a belated New York debut at Primary Stages (it was seen in 2000 in Los Angeles). And lest you think, well, very few of us are going to ever have to face such a monumental dilemma—think again: Blessing indicts every one of us for that son's crimes, very convincingly.
May N'Kame is willful, self-reliant, smart, shrewd, and articulate. She has glaucoma, and her son—emperor of an unnamed country in central Africa—has sent her to England to have laser surgery, performed by Dr. Cora Gage, the pre-eminent practitioner in this field. On the day before the surgery, Mme. N'Kame and Dr. Gage meet uneasily over tea at the latter's home in St. Ives, a rural community outside Cambridge. They talk about their pasts and, specifically, their sons. The doctor's is dead, the result of a terrible accident for which she still blames herself. MMe. M'Kame's is of course still very much alive, having his despotic way, unchecked by a world that doesn't seem too concerned about who he butchers, as long as they're his own people. Dr. Gage wants Mme. M'Kame to persuade her son to commute the death sentences of four prominent physicians who refused to carry out his orders. Mme. M'Kame is willing to grant this favor—if the doctor will grant a genuinely uncommon one in return.
These women are remarkable creations; Blessing shows us that one whose only reason for being is predicated on saving lives and that another whose only child seems bent on destroying as many lives as he can, have, in the final analysis, almost everything in common. He also confronts us with an ugly and important truth: that every person, safe and comfortable in a relatively affluent nation like Great Britain or the United States, who fails to heed to calls for help coming from the less fortunate—in our own hemisphere or in another one—is culpable for every life lost there. Whether we stand by and let foreign tyrants commit genocide or merely under-fund emergency services in inner cities, we're responsible. Going to St. Ives is about two disparate women trying to own up to their responsibilities; to make some kind of difference in a seemingly indifferent world.
Now, I've perhaps made Going to St. Ives sound woefully polemical, which is neither fair nor accurate. What it is, mostly, is a splendidly vivid clash between these two magnetic, strong personalities. In the hands of Vivienne Benesch, who shows us the careful, cautious, soulful British doctor, and especially L. Scott Caldwell, who gives a bravura performance as the courageous force of nature that is May M'Kame, these women come to life, engaging us for every moment of the play, and for many more thereafter as we wonder whether we would have the guts to do the things that each eventually finds herself called upon to do.
Director Maria Mileaf's production is exemplary, featuring a stunning set by Neil Patel that is transformed painstakingly at intermission from a proper English sitting room to a rather barren African courtyard garden. Appropriate lighting by David Lander and music by Michael Roth enhance the design; Ann Hould-Ward's costumes—dazzlingly colorful and bold for the African lady, perfectly ordinary and nondescript for the Brit—brilliantly highlight the cultural differences between the two women.
Blessing's play has its weaknesses: there are places where the dialogue sounds more writerly than it should (particularly when May quotes from a poem in the middle of one of her sentences), and the attempts to draw perfect parallels between the lives and values of the two characters occasionally feel forced. Allusions to the poem from which he drew his play's title and the use of Blue Willow china as an important symbol also falter. Nevertheless, Going to St. Ives is not only an enormously watchable play, it's an important one, that makes us take a hard look at some issues we'd rather complacently ignore. Ignorance may be bliss, but compassion is one of the things that makes us human—we need to be reminded of our duty to all who dwell on this planet with us. Here's a powerful, involving drama that does just that.